Maryland courts review virtually every request in a child custody case in accordance with the “best interests of the child” standard. Judges seek to protect the well-being and general welfare of children brought before them, no matter the circumstances. In some cases, courts will intervene when a child is being neglected by his or her parents. In fact, state law protects children from “neglect,” which is legally defined as “leaving a child unattended or other failure to give proper care and attention to a child by any parent . . . under circumstances that indicate (1) that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm.” In order to properly understand your rights in any child custody case, during a divorce or separation proceeding, it is important that you contact an experienced Maryland family law attorney as soon as possible.
Child custody cases take many different shapes and forms. In some unique situations, a child may be a citizen of another country but in the United States and in the care of a family member other than a parent, in order to avoid neglect. When this happens, courts may be called upon to determine whether it is in the child’s best interests to be reunited with the parents. In some instances, the court could determine that reunion is not a viable option due to neglect.
In a recent Maryland case, a circuit court appointed “Charlene” as guardian of her 17-year-old cousin, a native of Guatemala. While he was living with his parents in Guatemala, since the age of 12, he had to quit school and work in the fields to earn money for his parents, who were disabled and unable to earn a living. He came to the United States to have a better future. Charlene filed a motion requesting that a Maryland court make certain findings under the law in order to render the teen eligible for “Special Immigrant Status.” This would enable him to stay in the U.S. and go to school.
The trial court denied the request, determining that the boy was not neglected under Maryland law and also declining to find that it would be in the best interests of the child not to be returned to Guatemala. Charlene appealed. The court of appeals first pointed out that the trial court used an incorrect standard in determining that the boy was not neglected. The court ruled that the appropriate standard to apply for a SIJ predicate order is to determine whether the child would be considered to be neglected under Maryland law, not whether he would be considered neglected in his country of origin.
In applying the “correct” standard, the court found that he would be considered neglected under Maryland law. Furthermore, the court held that the trial court also erred in finding that it would be in his best interests to be reunited with his family, despite the neglectful conditions. According to the court, in order to determine a child’s best interests in this state, one must evaluate the child’s life chances and “predict with whom the child will be better off in the future.”
The court completely reversed the lower court’s decision and sent the case back for further proceedings in accordance with this decision. The case is a good illustration of the complicated nature of child custody determinations and the need for an experienced family law attorney to diligently protect your rights. Anthony A. Fatemi is a family law attorney with a great deal of experience representing parties throughout the state of Maryland. For help with your family law needs, you are encouraged to contact us at (301) 519-2801, or to submit our online contact form.
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