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In re Priscilla B.

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

October 30, 2013

IN RE: PRISCILLA B.

Wright, Nazarian, Davis, Arrie W. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

OPINION

NAZARIAN, J.

George B. ("Father"), the father of six-year-old Priscilla B., appeals the Order of the Circuit Court for Worcester County that found Priscilla a child in need of assistance ("CINA") for the third time. The circuit court affirmed the recommendation of a master who found, after a hearing, that Priscilla's mother, Christina F. ("Mother"), and Father neglected Priscilla by failing to provide her with an emotionally or physically safe environment. The court also granted temporary shared custody to Priscilla's maternal grandmother and a couple who was caring for Priscilla at that time (and had in the past). Father appeals that order, Mother does not. Because we find no error in the master's and the circuit court's conclusions that Priscilla was properly found a CINA, removed from the home, and placed in temporary shared custody, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

Mother, Father and (until she was removed) Priscilla live in Berlin, Maryland, in a trailer that the record reveals (without dispute) is dirty and badly in need of repair. The setting by itself doesn't, and shouldn't, give rise to CINA proceedings-poverty does not render parents unfit or children unsafe. But this family's living conditions deteriorated to the point that in late September 2012, a child protective services investigator, Tammy Jones, investigated the home based on allegations of neglect: Priscilla had lost weight, lived in an environment that involved continued domestic violence and alcohol and drug abuse, had been left home alone under the “supervision" of the family dog, and had medical needs that were left unmet. Based on these allegations, and in part due to the family's history with the Worcester County Department of Social Services (“DSS"), Ms. Jones investigated further.

A. Prior DSS Involvement And CINA Proceeding.

DSS knew this family well, and long before the events giving rise to this case. Priscilla tested positive for the presence of cocaine when she was born in 2006. Under the CINA statute, this test result gave rise to a year-long presumption that she was “not receiving proper care from [her] mother" and fell within the definition of a CINA. Md. Code (1974, 2013 Repl. Vol.), ' 3-818(l) of the Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article (“CJ"). Although her case was closed in July 2007, as Ms. Jones detailed in a Court Report to the master in this case, DSS was only briefly out of Priscilla's life, [1] and reentered it in October 2010 after complaints that Mother and Father had continuing problems with domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and housing issues that gave rise to a new DSS investigation.[2] The month before, police had responded to an early morning call alleging a domestic dispute and found both parties heavily intoxicated, with Father having locked Mother out of the house. The condition of the house presaged its state in the current proceeding: DSS found a hole in the middle of a bedroom floor, broken windows, a yard cluttered with trash and dangerous debris, and no food in the home. At that time Priscilla and Father shared a couch to sleep because Mother took over the bedroom when she was drunk. These findings led to a proceeding in which Priscilla was found (for the second time) to be a CINA. For reasons that are not apparent from this record, the case was closed on April 23, 2012. Notably, though, the DSS investigation remained open, and only five months passed before intervention became necessary once again.

B. Current Allegations And Investigation.

Ms. Jones began investigating the allegations giving rise to this case in September 2012. She met first with Priscilla at her school, then went to the home to meet with Mother and Father. At the December 7, 2012 hearing before the master (the “Hearing"), Ms. Jones recounted Father's immediate hostility upon her arrival, as well as the unsafe conditions she found in the home:

[A]t the home [Father] met me outside and I discussed with him the referral allegations and he was immediately argumentative and became belligerent and denied all of the allegations, and then I asked to see the inside of the home. And I went inside of the home which was very dark. The flooring that I walked on through the entryway of the home and the living room and the hallway leading down to the bedrooms, it moved, like there was holes in the floor. Some of those holes were covered with just a carpet and I addressed that with [Father]. I said, you know, the floor is moving, like I was fearful that I was going to fall through the floor. And he said all floors move. And so then we walked through the hallway and that floor was the same way, back to Priscilla's bedroom, and I observed that there was a mattress on the floor and that's where Priscilla slept. And I asked why the mattress was on the floor and [Father] said that it was more comfortable. And I asked if it was more comfortable for Priscilla or for [Father] and he said it was more comfortable, those were his words. So [Father] was very argumentative while I was inside of the home.
[Mother] was there, she was emotional, not as argumentative or belligerent as [Father], but I didn't feel safe being inside the home so we went back outside, continued conversation with [Father]. Both he and [Mother] stated that they didn't understand why I was at the home, they didn't understand the allegations. . . .
. . . In addition to the flooring it was unkempt. The kitchen area was dirty, the refrigerator and freezer were very dirty, it was very cluttered, a lot of items that I don't know what they were were lying all around. So I explained to them when I was outside that it was my assessment that the home, the living environment was not safe for Priscilla and I asked them to make a plan for Priscilla until we could have a family involvement meeting.

(Emphasis added.)

Based on that visit, Ms. Jones determined that Priscilla should be removed from the home because “the home environment was not safe" for her. The parents suggested two resources for potential placements: Priscilla's maternal grandmother (“Grandmother") and friends of Grandmother through her church who had helped care for Priscilla in the past (whom we refer to as the “Caregivers, " and the mother individually as "Carol P."). Ms. Jones held a “family involvement meeting" shortly after the investigation, and the parties agreed on a plan for Priscilla's care. Father agreed to fix the flooring in the trailer. The parents were required to go to couples counseling, and DSS recommended that each undergo substance abuse counseling and drug evaluations.

Ms. Jones also investigated allegations that Priscilla's parents had allowed a spider bite on Priscilla's leg (which, even Father agreed, she received at home, and that ultimately required medical attention and antibiotics) to go untreated. Grandmother testified that she had noticed the wound on Priscilla's leg, which was obviously infected; she took Priscilla to the doctor, who confirmed the diagnosis. Grandmother received antibiotics to treat the wound and told Mother and Father to administer the medication to Priscilla regularly. Grandmother left town and returned a few days later to discover that Priscilla's parents had not given her the medication regularly. Indeed, Grandmother testified that she has always had to be responsible for getting medical care for Priscilla.

Grandmother also took a dim view of her son-in-law's and daughter's parenting skills. According to her testimony, they fought when Priscilla was with them “maybe 80 percent of the time at least." She testified about her own run-in with Father shortly after Priscilla went to live with the Caregivers, when Grandmother took her back to her parents for a visit: “when I took her over they met me on the porch and that's when I said she wasn't supposed to stay there and he got right up in my face and he said she's my daughter and she'll stay here." She testified that she saw Father drink alcohol with Priscilla around at gatherings at the home. And when asked about her relationship with Mother and Father, she responded, “With my daughter, I love my daughter very much, but I don't like her. [Father, ] no comment."

Carol P. contrasted Priscilla's environment before removal with the environment at her home, where Priscilla lived at the time of the hearing with her and her husband and their three children. She had watched Priscilla at various times since she was four years old. Carol P. testified that in the summer of 2012, Mother called her at about 6:30 in the morning in the midst of a fight with Father. Mother was hiding in a camper behind their trailer with her older daughter, and had called the police. As Carol P. put it, Mother was distraught and afraid, and told her that Mother and Father “were fighting and arguing and that if something happens I have to fight for [Priscilla]." Carol P. testified that she had not seen Mother and Father drink alcohol around Priscilla, but had seen empty beer cans and beer containers in the yard.

Carol P. also described an event that left Priscilla extremely upset. After she had been removed from her parents' care, the Caregivers went away for a weekend and Priscilla stayed with Grandmother. Mother had told Priscilla she would bring donuts to Grandmother's house and they would carve a pumpkin:

So Priscilla got up the next morning at 8:00 in the morning and she was like I don't want to eat breakfast here. I [want] to go over and eat breakfast with my mom and grandmom, and my mom's bringing me donuts. Well, I think we called about eight or ten times that morning and they did pick the phone up and we took her over to [Grandmother]'s house and I believe [Grandmother] told me that it was between . . . 1:00 and 2:00 that [Mother] came over, did not have the donuts. And I know that seems insignificant, but to a child that's important. And they didn't carve the pumpkin, they painted the pumpkin.

Carol P. painted a picture of Priscilla as an agitated, unsettled child when she came back from a visit with her parents, in marked contrast to the creature of habit she had become when living with the Caregivers:

Well, particularly this last time she was very, very active and she had been given caffeine. And . . . with us she's on a schedule, you know, and she knows what to expect; she knows when to expect her breakfast, she knows when to expect her dinner, she knows when there's bath and there's homework time because she is on a set schedule. I have three other children. And when she comes back she's—she comes back different, she's antsy and . . . I would describe as a child that is . . . just very edgy and just not herself. When she's at our home she's just like one of our children and she just—she plays and she doesn't worry about things.

(Emphasis added.) Carol P. explained that according to Priscilla's teachers, she is doing well in school; although she is a grade level behind, she is starting to learn to read, understands phonics and sounds out words, and is doing well in math.

Carol P. was amenable to having joint custody of Priscilla "[b]ecause she's been in our home and she's been in our life and she's part of our family." She expressed no such sentiments when asked about Priscilla returning to Mother and Father:

Q. How do you feel about returning her to her parents?
A. Scared for Priscilla, scared that she won't be safe there, scared because of the things that she tells me and things that I've observed and things that I've seen.
Q. Well, you haven't seen any injuries to her from her home, have you?
A. No, but she's been to my home where her hair's been matted, dirt underneath her toenails, and I asked her when she's gotten a bath and she said it's been a while. I've seen her—
Q. You don't like [Mother], do you?
A. No, I like [Mother].
Q. You do?
A. And I like [Father], but I have to care for Priscilla's safety, and Priscilla, I look at Priscilla as a child that needs help and needs somebody that's going to take care of her and that's going to meet her needs and help her to grow and be the person that she can be.

Viola Williams, a case work specialist with the In-Home Family Services Unit of DSS who had been the case worker for the family in the prior CINA hearing, testified at the Hearing that Priscilla's appearance and demeanor had improved since she began living with the Caregivers:

A. She is very close to [the Caregivers] and their children, the family members that are in the home. She enjoys spending time with them, she's learning different things, she's on more of a schedule since she's been there with them and she looks happy. Her overall general, she is very happy being there with them.
Q. How about her appearance, have you noticed any changes in her appearance since she's been residing with the [Caregivers]?
A. Yes, she-her overall appearance, she-I'm not sure if I have the word [for] this, but she looks different to me, very, very appropriate.
Q. How about her hygiene, do you notice a difference now in her hygiene?
A. Well, her hygiene was clean, but she just appears to look different this ...

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