One of the most difficult situations within Maryland family law is parental child abuse. A 2012 appellate case dealt with the question of a child abuse charge against a father. In the case, the department of social services received a report that a father had held one of his two children by the arm to make sure he finished eating spaghetti with mushrooms.
When the mother, who shared custody with the father, came to pick up the kids, she saw there were bruises on her son’s neck and a scratch under his chin. She took him to a pediatrician who reported the possible abuse to the department of social services. The police investigated and the son told them that the father had grabbed him by the neck and pulled him down.
The investigation led to a social worker finding that indicated child abuse. The father provided a substantially similar account as the son and the mother. Under Maryland law, child abuse is the physical or mental injury of a child by a parent who has care, custody or responsibility for supervising a child such that the child’s health or welfare may be harmed.
When asked, the social worker explained that the child could have choked on the mushrooms and could have been killed. The father had not refuted her concerns. In reaching his finding of indicated child abuse, the administrative law judge explained that the children’s statements were credible evidence. The father’s size in comparison to his four-year-old son made him a danger if he was out of control.
The father appealed. The Court of Special Appeals considered the question of whether indicated child abuse is proper, when while administering corporal punishment, a child disobeys the parent punishing him or her, and is subsequently injured. In this case, there was no finding that corporal punishment was administered. The Court of Special Appeal noted the similarity of this case to an earlier case in which a father had swung a belt buckle at a six-year-old who was trying to avoid the blows.
The father argued that admitting the children’s out of court statements was improper because the judge had not made a finding that the child had the capacity to observe, understand or recall the events, nor ensured that the child understood the duty to tell the truth. In the father’s view, the department of social services should have set forth evidence and examined the child as to his competency to relate the truth of what had happened in the mushroom incident. The father wanted factors described in Criminal Procedure law to apply to determine whether out-of-court statements made by his son were sufficiently reliable.
The Court of Special Appeals explained that it is improper for a fact-finder (like the administrative law judge) to consider hearsay evidence without considering its reliability and value in proving the facts. In this case, the social worker had testified after being sworn in, which was close to the date of the incident. The statements made to her by the mother, son and sister corroborated each other. The appellate court reasoned that since the father had the opportunity to cross-examine the adult witnesses, the out-of-court statements were admissible.
The father had also argued that the judge should have made a finding to establish the extent to which the child’s injury place the child at a risk of harm. In his view, it was necessary for the department to show exactly how the child was at risk of harm. The judge found it sufficient that the father bruised the child’s neck and scratched his chin. The Court of Special Appeals concluded that the scene could have been painted better, but essentially the judge had made the findings based on reasonable evidence.
In its last ruling, the appellate court noted that corporal punishment in light of a child’s age is not prohibited. However, the force must be appropriate to the situation. The father argued he was reasonable in trying to make sure his son ate the mushrooms. The judge explained that the father’s actions in chasing the son down and forcing food on him were the actions of an out-of-control person, not a parent imposing a reasonable corporal punishment. The appellate court deferred to the judge’s fact finding and inferences and upheld his finding of child abuse.
There can be a fine line between disciplining a child and abusing him. The court here suggested that the line is drawn once a parent behaves angrily. A finding of child abuse while parents are divorcing (as in this case) can have severe negative consequences for a parent hoping to gain custody in a divorce. An experienced Maryland family law attorney may be able to help. Contact our office via the online form for a legal consultation.
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