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In re Adoption Guardianship of K'Amora K.

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

August 1, 2014


Woodward, Nazarian, Reed, JJ.


The Circuit Court for Baltimore City terminated Keisha K.'s ("Mother") parental rights vis-à-vis her daughter, K'Amora, via a rarely used analytical path: the court found by clear and convincing evidence that "exceptional circumstances" justified the termination of Mother's parental rights and that termination served K'Amora's best interests, without deciding whether or not Mother was unfit to serve as her parent. After a hearing (the "TPR Hearing"), the court grounded its finding of exceptional circumstances in: (1) Mother's refusal to allow physicians to administer medication to K'Amora after she was born exposed to human immunodeficiency virus ("HIV"); (2) nearly two years of comprehensive but unsuccessful efforts by the Baltimore City Department of Social Services ("DSS") to involve Mother in K'Amora's life and assess Mother's ability to parent her; (3) Mother's historical inability to provide a safe environment for her other children; and (4) K'Amora's positive and healthy experience with her foster family. Mother challenges the termination decision and we affirm.


K'Amora was born on February 16, 2012 and, as the testimony at the TPR Hearing revealed, needed help immediately. As social worker Catherine Miller testified, right after K'Amora's birth Mother—who was HIV-positive and had a "high HIV viral load" at the time—refused HIV medication for herself and for K'Amora, even though doctors advised her that K'Amora's risk of contracting HIV from in utero exposure would fall "almost down to zero" with treatment. To compound the problem, Mother expressed irrational and inconsistent reasons for refusing treatment:[1]

[S]ometimes she would tell us that she didn't want to take the medications because she needed to take them on a full stomach. . . . And then the next time the medications were due, she would say that she couldn't take them because she needed to take them on an empty stomach. And the conversations would just go around and around, with no successful outcome.

Mother acted erratically in the hospital in other ways. She called the police to the hospital at least three times, claiming that the staff were "trying to kidnap her baby, and lying about her." Because of concerns about K'Amora's safety, hospital staff placed a "sitter" (a "professional who sits in the room to ensure . . . the baby's safety") in Mother's hospital room. Ms. Miller summed up Mother's disposition by describing her as "argumentative, irrational and difficult to work with, " and hospital staff ultimately called DSS for an Emergency Family Involvement Meeting ("FIM").

Tricia Fayall, a child protective service worker at DSS, received Ms. Miller's report and oversaw the FIM at the hospital, the result of which was that "because of [Mother's] mental state, . . . we thought that it would be best for [K'Amora] to go into foster care." It would be an understatement to say that the FIM did not go smoothly: "[Mother] called the police on us, while we were there. And then she called the police on the police, while we were there." Mother evidently believed that Ms. Fayall (or hospital staff, it's not clear which) were "trying to take her baby . . . right then and there, " but called the police a second time because she felt that the responding officers were not "doing their job."

Six days after K'Amora was born, DSS placed her in the care of a foster family, [2]and Mother had weekly supervised visitation opportunities. Priscilla Iwuanyanwu, the assigned case worker beginning in March 2012, oversaw K'Amora's placement and visits with Mother; she knew Mother because she had also overseen the care of Mother's three other children, whom we discuss below. Unfortunately, Mother's erratic behavior continued. Of her sixty-one scheduled visits with K'Amora, she missed twenty-seven. She changed her phone number frequently and never kept DSS abreast of her whereabouts. And although Mother signed two service agreements with DSS, she refused to sign the third, which would have run from February 26, 2013 to August 29, 2013.

The visits Mother did attend failed to blossom into a healthy parent-child relationship. When K'Amora cried at visits, and she often did, Mother became angry, frustrated, and confused. Mother expressed reluctance to take K'Amora out of her car seat and was known to leave a visit early if K'Amora did not settle down quickly. As K'Amora advanced from infancy to toddlerhood, Ms. Iwuanyanwu saw no bond form between them, and expressed concern that Mother took pictures of K'Amora rather than interacting with her. At one point, Mother even seemed to deny being K'Amora's mother:

Most of the time she comes to visit, she's kind of quiet. She don't say nothing. If I try to tell her to try to interact with her child, she would tell me, well, it's your child. That's not my child. I'm just here to visit.

(Emphasis added.) Mother's behavior at visits ranged from quiet to volatile; at one point she accused Ms. Iwuanyanwu of hitting K'Amora, and on another occasion suggested that K'Amora's foster mother had been breast-feeding her (even though she had no reason to think this was the case). Ms. Iwuanyanwu expressed frustration that Mother seemed to make no effort to bond with her daughter, and DSS remained uncomfortable with the prospect of K'Amora living with her.

Sharmika Spence, a Team Administrator with DSS, covered for Ms. Iwuanyanwu and supervised two of Mother's visits with K'Amora. In January 2013, Mother complained at a visit that K'Amora was upset and crying because her hair had been styled too tightly (even though Ms. Spence didn't believe that was the case). Ms. Spence recalled that Mother "seemed to not know what to do" in response to K'Amora's crying. Although K'Amora ultimately settled down, Ms. Spence expressed the belief that she did so because she "wore herself out, " not because Mother succeeded in comforting her. Ms. Spence saw "no observation of a real bond of how a child would respond when they are familiar with someone and can be consoled."

Ms. Spence supervised another visit in which Mother not only couldn't connect with K'Amora, but blamed her crying on her foster parents' neglecting to feed her—even though Ms. Spence observed that K'Amora was of an appropriate height and weight, and DSS never had any concerns about her health or the quality of her foster family's care. Mother ended that particular visit early, and Ms. Spence observed that Mother again seemed unable to handle K'Amora's fussiness. Ms. Spence also related an episode in which Mother called her into a visit and complained about a bruise on K'Amora's thigh that the social worker explained came from an immunization. Mother insisted that the bruise resulted from abuse at the hands of K'Amora's foster parents, and she contacted police. The police then required that a physician investigate, and Child Protective Services ruled out the possibility of any abuse (consistent with K'Amora's medical records, which showed a recent immunization).

Overall, Ms. Spence questioned Mother's "ability to parent K'Amora safely":
I have concern about her, about the bond with the child. During visits there are times when I have been called in to a visit because [Mother] will not talk to the child, will not touch the child. And that's a concern for [DSS].
Because if you're displaying that kind of behavior or actions in a . . . place where you know you're being monitored, then when you're at home I'm not sure that you're going to be displaying some loving care and affection for this child, if they are not reacting to you in a way in which you think they should.
And [Mother] has shown that she cannot . . . reconcile two thoughts. So when I say that K'Amora doesn't respond to her in a way that maybe a child who's been with their mother all along would respond. And I try to explain to [Mother] that this is why we have to continue to have visits, so that she becomes familiar with you, and things like that. She's . . . it seems that she can't bring the two together.
And she becomes upset with the child because she doesn't respond to her.

Mother also expressed to Ms. Spence the belief that DSS was "playing mind games with her, that the worker is jealous of her. And that's why she doesn't want to give her child back. Because the worker wants the child." Ms. Spence testified that Mother's mental health issues were the greatest impediment to reunification. Mother told Ms. Spence that she went to therapy only to mollify DSS, and Ms. Spence was concerned that Mother would not seek any mental health treatment at all if she got K'Amora back. In their several FIMs, Ms. Spence found Mother combative, resistant to therapy or to addressing her mental health issues, and completely unwilling to consider taking medication.

Indeed, Mother's mental health was a recurring theme throughout the TPR Hearing. Mother's therapist, Deborah Wells Lane, testified that Mother would not accept medications to treat her diagnosed "major depression disorder." Mother's attendance at counseling sessions was "inconsistent, " and as of the date of the TPR Hearing, Mother had not appeared for a session for over five months. Because of her sporadic attendance, Ms. Lane described her improvement as "slight. . . . [I]t was really still in the beginning stages." (Her treatment goals included developing coping skills, learning to manage the symptoms of her depression, and getting into a daily routine.) Much like Ms. Spence, Ms. Lane believed that Mother only attended treatment in order to try to get K'Amora back. And Ms. Iwuanyanwu testified that although Mother agreed in services agreements to provide documentation of her mental health visits, she never did so, and when Ms. Iwuanyanwu confronted Mother, she would claim that her therapist was lying about her failure to appear.

Mother's history with her other children, especially with her oldest daughter ("Sister"), [3] revealed prior incidents of neglect and abuse that several of the witnesses at the TPR Hearing corroborated. The juvenile court declared Sister a CINA in July 2011, when she was thirteen years old, after it found that Mother had beaten Sister with an extension cord, and Sister reported that Mother had punched and slapped her. But Sister repeatedly fled foster homes and returned to Mother, leading DSS to let her remain with Mother in spite of the abuse. (Although this seems counterintuitive, DSS thought it best for Sister to live with Mother because her case worker would know where she was and because, unlike K'Amora, Sister was old enough to report any further abuse or neglect.[4]) Mother's two other children were in the care of their respective fathers and, therefore, not formally declared CINA, but Ms. Iwuanyanwu had been their DSS case worker as well, and the record contained evidence that raised serious questions about Mother's ability to provide a safe environment for any of her children.[5]

Mother, on the other hand, viewed DSS's lesser-of-two-evils decision to allow Sister to remain with her as acknowledging her ability to care for K'Amora:

[Mother] would say, I know how to care for my own child. If you think I'm not good enough for K'Amora, why did you send [Sister] home? There was so many time she had threaten that she bringing [Sister] back to us. She said [Sister] doesn't listen, she's stubborn, she don't go to school.

Ms. Spence differentiated K'Amora's situation from Sister's primarily by their age difference:

At K'Amora's age it's important that she understands that there's going to be an adult present to meet her need, at the point she notifies us that there is a need to be met. And because she talks very little, her way to let someone know that she has a need is to cry.
And if an adult around her is not able to console her, it internally creates something in the child that she's not going to be, her needs are not going to be met. And so, of course, that can produce things later on in life.
And so our concern is [Mother's] ability to meet her needs, to console her. To find out what is wrong with her, and to be able to address it at the time.

Both Ms. Spence and Ms. Iwuanyanwu recommended that the court terminate Mother's parental rights. Ms. Spence agreed with counsel for DSS that Mother was "in control of the barriers to reunification, " and that she had failed to take "any steps to remove those barriers, " despite DSS's efforts:

We have worked with [Mother] for some time towards reunification, without progress. . . . I have personally pleaded my case with her, with regard to just addressing the things that she needs to address, so that she can have her child back in her care, as she said she would like. And it just has not moved forward.
I have grave concerns about her mental health and her ability to maintain K'Amora's safety and well being. And I don't think that at this time, or at any time in the near future, if [Mother] does not address her mental health, that she will be able to maintain K'Amora's well being.

Ms. Iwuanyanwu likewise opined that the court should terminate Mother's parental rights because Mother was not following through with her service agreement, her court-ordered mental health treatment, or visits with K'Amora. She also stated that K'Amora viewed her foster parents as her parents, and that she felt safe and well-cared for with them.

K'Amora's foster mother, Betty R. ("Ms. R."), then testified about the care she provided to K'Amora right after her birth and about K'Amora's life in the R. Family's home. K'Amora had received all of her medications and was HIV-free at the time of the TPR Hearing. Ms. R. and her husband have two adult children (a son, forty-one, and a daughter, thirty-eight), two adopted children (a son in college and a daughter who was five years old at the time of the hearing), and also are foster parents to a boy about K'Amora's age. Ms. R. described K'Amora as a "very loving, " and "very friendly, very happy" child. As she put it, her foster son and K'Amora were like siblings and played very well together. K'Amora also had good relationships with Ms. R.'s other children and grandchildren. Ms. R. described K'Amora's involvement with church activities and considered her very much a part of the R. Family.

Mother also testified at the TPR Hearing, after suggesting initially that she would not. Mother claimed that she had attended all of her visits with K'Amora, cancelling "maybe like two times, " and only because she had to go to therapy. She denied ever being told she needed medication for mental health issues. She contended that she went to therapy even though she was not depressed, and she denied ever ...

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