Krauser, C.J., Wright, Friedman, JJ.
This case raises the question of what standards a circuit court should use in determining whether a child has demonstrated eligibility for Special Immigrant Juvenile status. The Appellant, Charlene M., raises two questions for our review:
(1) Did the trial court err in determining that the child had not been neglected under Maryland law.
(2) Did the trial court err in declining to find it would be in the child's best interest not to return to Guatemala.
We conclude that the circuit court applied the wrong legal standard when refusing to make a finding that reunification is not viable due to neglect. We also conclude that the circuit court abused its discretion by not applying the correct legal standard as to neglectful conditions. We, therefore, vacate and remand.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Charlene M. ("Charlene") was appointed guardian of her cousin, Dany G. ("Dany"), a native of Guatemala, on November 20, 2013, by the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. Charlene also filed an unopposed motion seeking certain specific findings that would make Dany eligible for the federal government to award him Special Immigrant Juvenile status. On June 26, 2014, the circuit court held a hearing and received testimony in support of these specific findings. Charlene and Dany were the only two witnesses who testified at this hearing.
Charlene testified that "starting from the age of 12 [Dany] was no longer able to study because he had to work to support his parents." Dany also testified that he left school at age 12 because he had to help his parents who were sick and that he never returned to school while in Guatemala. When he quit school, Dany testified that he went to work in the fields, working with herbicides. Dany explained that this "was very risky work because a lot of people got sick over that." Dany testified that he would work from 6:00 in the morning to 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon, Monday through Saturday, and that the money he earned went to help his parents who were disabled and have not worked since Dany was 12 years old.
Dany testified that he came to the United States at the age of 17 because he "had to help [his] parents, because [he] didn't have a future [in Guatemala], and … to have a better future." Dany's father took out a loan to help Dany make the trip to the United States. Once Dany was detained by U.S. immigration authorities, his father took out a second loan to help Dany travel from a detention center in Arizona to Maryland.
Dany testified that he attends Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Maryland. At the time of the hearing, he had just finished ninth grade and was scheduled to begin 10th grade. Dany testified that he liked attending school and was "learning quite a bit." Charlene testified that her mother and brother currently provide financial support for Dany, and that Dany's parents do not send any monetary support for him. Charlene testified that if Dany was forced to return to Guatemala "he would lose the opportunity to study, as he's doing now." She testified to her belief that if he went back "he would go back and work to help support his parents and siblings." Dany echoed the prediction that if he were forced to return to Guatemala he would be unable "to make something of [himself] at school. And [he] would have to go back to work" due to his parent's continuing and advancing illness.
Despite this testimony, the trial court determined that it could not find that Dany was abused, abandoned, or neglected under Maryland law. The trial court also refused to find that it was in Dany's best interest to not return to Guatemala. This appeal followed.
I. Special Immigrant Juvenile Status
Special Immigrant Juvenile ("SIJ") status was created by the United States Congress to provide undocumented children who lack immigration status with a defense against deportation proceedings.
Some children present in the United States without legal immigration status may be in need of humanitarian protection because they have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent. Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status is an immigration classification that may allow for these vulnerable children to immediately apply for lawful permanent resident status ("LPR" status or a "Green Card").
"Special Immigrant Juvenile Status: Information for Juvenile Courts, " U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services ("USCIS"), (hereinafter "Info. for Juvenile Courts") available at http://perma.cc/W5W3-MGGC (last visited March 9, 2015); see also Perez-Olano v.Gonzalez, 248 F.R.D. 248, 252 (2008) (noting that SIJ provisions create a method for abused, neglected, and abandoned children to become lawful permanent residents). Children eligible for SIJ status ...