Maryland Court Reviews Juvenile Court Custody-Related Order

watch-children-1415869-mWhen parents separate or decide to divorce, they must be prepared to address and hopefully resolve many important issues, such as child custody and visitation. In an ideal situation, both parents will agree on an arrangement that suits the best interests of the child. However, under Maryland law, either parent may petition a circuit court for custody of a child, and if the parties do not agree about who should have custody, the court will make the determination and grant sole or shared custody. Each custody case is unique. In some extreme cases, the court must step in to take a child out of the biological parent’s custody, with the hope of eventually reuniting the family members. No matter what your child custody case involves, it is extremely important to protect your rights. Parents are encouraged to consult with an experienced family law attorney from the very outset.

In a recent Maryland custody case, In re: Andre J., the juvenile court determined that the then eight-year-old was a “child in need of assistance” (or “CINA”).  The child had significant intellectual disabilities. The local Department of Health and Human Services (the “Department”) filed a petition with the court alleging that the mother neglected Andre and his siblings, and that she was unable to provide her children with proper care and attention. He was removed from his mother’s custody and care and placed in a foster care arrangement.  The court established something known as a “permanency plan of reunification” with his mother and granted her visitation.  Andre reportedly thrived in his foster home under the care of a special education teacher.

Under Maryland law, permanency plans are reviewed every six months.  Throughout the next decade, Andre’s permanency plan took various forms. The ultimate goal, however, was to reunify him with his mother in Washington, D.C. When Andre was 19 years old, the Department recommended that the plan be changed from “reunification” to “another planned permanent living arrangement” (“APPLA”), pointing out that Andre only had until he was 21 to effectuate reunification and that it was not a viable possibility. The court ordered that Andre continue to be a CINA and that the plan should be changed to APPLA, citing, among other things, Andre’s preference to remain in Maryland and his mother’s history of missing visits. The mother appealed the court’s order.

The Department opposed the appeal, arguing that no appeal is authorized by law because the juvenile court’s order is neither a final judgment nor an appealable interlocutory order.  On appeal, the court pointed out that an order changing a term of a child’s care and custody to the detriment of the parent is immediately appealable when it includes a substantial departure from the reunification goal. Under Maryland law, in order to determine whether an order affecting care and custody is immediately appealable, courts must look at whether the order changed the antecedent order. Here, the juvenile court changed the child’s care and custody by transferring custody to a new entity and by eliminating the mother’s visitation rights.  The court relied in part on Section 12-303 in concluding that the juvenile court’s order was appealable. Ultimately, the court affirmed the order changing Andre’s plan from reunification to APPLA, finding that it was within his best interests under Section 3-823.

This case illustrates the potentially complex nature of child custody matters and the importance of understanding the local state laws that may affect your family’s case.  Anthony A. Fatemi is a Maryland family law attorney with experience representing parties in child custody dispute.  For representation and legal guidance, you are encouraged to contact Mr. Fatemi at (888) 519-2801 or (301) 519-2801.

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