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Md. high court: Parental-termination judges should stick to statute

Judges in termination of parental rights cases must make sure their decisions are not clouded by considerations more appropriate for third-party child-custody disputes, such as the certainty of the youngster’s future with adoptive parents, Maryland’s top court ruled this week.

Rather, judges must cleave to the statutory requirements specifically listed for terminating parental rights, including the “exceptional circumstances” of abuse or neglect and the parents’ failure to try to comport their behavior to meet the child’s needs, the Court of Appeals added.

The high court rendered its decision in reinstating a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge’s order terminating the parental rights of an incarcerated father who had neither contacted the Department of Social Services nor had any firm plans to reunite with his child upon his release from prison in a year.

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals had vacated the termination of the father’s parental rights, saying the judge had impermissibly considered third-party custody factors, which go toward adoption and not terminating parental rights.

In its 6-1 decision, the Court of Appeals agreed the judge mistakenly considered custodial factors but said the decision to terminate was valid because it was ultimately based on the termination factors enumerated in Section 5-323 of Maryland’s Family Law Article. These factors – set against what the court called the “transcendent” consideration of the child’s best interest – include whether the child has been abused or neglected; the extent to which the parents have complied with department-provided services and conducted themselves to benefit the child; and the impact of termination on the child’s well-being.

“Proceedings to terminate parental rights necessitate maintaining a delicate balance between a parent’s constitutional right to raise their children, the state’s interest in protecting children, and the child’s best interests,” Judge Sally D. Adkins wrote for the court.

“We shall conclude that, when terminating parental rights, a juvenile court must base its assessment on the statutory factors set forth in FL Section 5-323,” Adkins added. “Consideration of exclusively custodial factors risks blurring important distinctions between parents and third-party custodians. In this case, the juvenile court’s inclusion of custody-specific factors did not taint its decision because it made specific findings on each relevant statutory factor and its (custodial) findings were substantively the same as its more appropriate statutory findings.”

But Judge Michele D. Hotten, the high court’s sole dissenter, said the circuit judge’s consideration of custodial factors in the termination decision did in fact cloud the ruling.

“Although the majority posits that the juvenile court’s reliance on custody factors did not taint the TPR decision, there is, ultimately, no way to guarantee that it did not,” Hotten wrote, noting the circuit court served as a juvenile court for  the termination proceeding. “Juvenile courts should be cautioned against piecemealing factors from other statutes or cases to bootstrap the desired goal of terminating a parent’s rights.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office said in a statement Wednesday it was “pleased that the court recognized that the juvenile court gave due regard to the father’s rights in this case and that it finally cleared the child’s path to adoption.”

Assistant Maryland Public Defender Kiran Iyer, the father’s appellate attorney, declined to comment on the high court’s ruling.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in In Re: Adoption/Guardianship of H.W., No. 70, September Term 2017.

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