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Foster parents would have right to intervene under Senate bill

Foster parents would have right to intervene under Senate bill

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ANNAPOLIS – Foster parents, often treated as mere witnesses in placement decisions regarding children in need of assistance (CINA), would have the right to intervene in the court cases where those decisions are made under legislation that came before a Senate panel Thursday.

“Foster parents are among the most caring, giving, thoughtful people you will find on the face of the Earth,” said Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, the bill’s chief sponsor, emphasizing that foster parents care for children not their own. “This bill just gives these selfless citizens a right to give information in court.”

Foster parents are “often in the best position” to advise circuit court judges on whether it would be in the children’s best interest to be reunited with their biological parents, sent to a willing relative or adopted by a non-family member, said Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery and vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The measure, however, drew sharp opposition from assistant Maryland Public Defender Nena Villamar, who represents indigent biological parents in termination of parental rights cases.

Giving foster parents a statutory right to intervene would ill-serve children by placing them in an “adversarial situation” that the judge would be powerless to prevent, said Villamar, who heads the public defender’s parental-defense division.

A right of intervention “would turn every CINA case into a custody battle,” Villamar said.

Currently, judges have discretion to grant or reject a foster parent’s motion to intervene in placement proceedings. Local social services offices must give foster parents 10 days’ notice before the child’s placement hearing will be held in circuit court.

Foster parents are permitted to provide input as witnesses.

Under Senate Bill 586, foster parents would be given not only 10 days’ notice of the hearing – by both social services and the circuit court — but also of their right to intervene, enabling them to be a party to the proceeding. The foster parents would also have the right to all non-privileged documents related to the child’s placement.

James K. MacAlister, an attorney and a foster parent, praised the proposal as a way to ensure judges in placement cases have input from those people who have spent the most time parenting the child in recent months or even years.

“The guiding mark for the judge is what’s in the child’s best interest,” MacAlister told the Senate committee. “Why do we wall foster parents out of that conversation?”

In response, Villamar said foster parents are not barred from the courtroom. They may present their observations and opinions to the judge as witnesses, she added.

But foster parents should not be treated on a par with the biological parents, who have a constitutional right to participate in a court proceeding affecting their children, Villamar told the committee.

“(Foster parents) don’t have an independent legal interest in the child” with regard to the proceeding, she said. “That is the presumption at law.”

Villamar’s comments drew criticism from several committee members who said foster parents often know and many times care more about the children than do the biological parents.

“I want those people to be parties,” Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, said of the foster parents.

“They are (in court) only because they love the children,” he added. “Why wouldn’t we want to make sure they are in the (court) room?”

Sen. Michael Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll, said he was “offended at the concept” that foster parents would not have a right to be a party.

“They have important information,” Hough said.

Sen. Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick, said foster parents “probably know the kid better than the (biological) parents.”

The legislation is cross-filed in the House of Delegates. Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery, is the chief sponsor of House Bill 369.

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