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In re B.C.

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

November 30, 2017


         Circuit Court for Baltimore County Case No. 03-I-14-134 Case No. 03 Z-16-000006

          Kehoe, Berger, Reed, JJ.


          Reed, J.

          On September 16, 2016, the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, sitting as a juvenile court ("the juvenile court"), disestablished and terminated the presumptive paternity of G.C. ("Appellant") to minor B.C. ("child" and "B.C." interchangeably). The court's decision followed from the Department of Social Services' ("the Department") filing of a motion for a finding of non-paternity. Prior to the Department's motion, Appellant requested a paternity test that proved that he was not the child's biological father. Subsequently, Appellant timely appeals two orders of the juvenile court, the order in the Child in Need of Assistance ("CINA") proceeding, which excluded him as the presumptive father of B.C. and the order striking him as a party in the Termination of Parental Rights ("TPR") proceeding. In doing so, he presents three questions for our review, which we have consolidated and rephrased for clarity as follows:

1. Did the juvenile court abuse its discretion where it determined it would be in the best interest of the child to deny Appellant paternity of B.C., at the request of the Department of Social Services, although he was married to the child's mother at the time of his birth?
2. Did the juvenile court err where it excluded Appellant as a party in the termination of parental rights case based on the prior order disestablishing paternity?

         For the reasons that follow, we answer Appellant's questions in the negative and affirm the judgment of the juvenile court.

          Factual And Procedural Background

         B.C., a minor, was born to C.R. ("Mother") in June of 2014, at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Shortly after his birth, it was clear to doctors that he had been exposed to cocaine in utero. B.C. remained in the hospital for two additional weeks following his birth, to detox and was subsequently sheltered by the Department of Social Services ("the Department"), on June 25, 2014. Although Appellant and Mother maintained from "the very beginning that Appellant was not biologically [B.C.]'s father, " he is named as B.C.'s father on his birth certificate by virtue of being married to Mother at the time of B.C.'s birth.

         B.C. came into the Department's care via a Shelter Care Order, and was placed in an agency foster home. On August 14, 2014, the juvenile court found B.C. to be a Child In Need of Assistance ("CINA") because he had been born exposed to cocaine and neither his mother, his maternal grandmother, nor Appellant was able to provide him with appropriate care and supervision. Both Mother and Appellant were able to visit the child as supervised and arranged by the Department. At the permanency planning hearing, it was agreed that the final plan would be reunification with his parents. Although reunification was the ultimate goal, the Department had concerns that neither Appellant, nor C.R., was fit to parent the child. Accordingly, at the request of Appellant, B.C.'s permanency plan was changed to relative placement for adoption with Appellant's niece ("Niece") in North Carolina.[1]

         The arrangement for B.C. to stay with Niece was initially amenable to all parties; however, while B.C. was staying with Niece, Appellant "became threatening and said aggressive things to [her]." As a result of Appellant's aggressiveness, Niece feared for the safety of her home and changed her address and phone number. Further, in June, Appellant brought mother, without Niece's and the Department's knowledge or permission, to visit the child. Niece objected to Appellant bringing C.R. because of her "unaddressed mental health…and substance abuse issues." As a result of that visit, Niece refused Appellant any future contact with B.C. and precluded him from visiting with the child. During this time, Appellant was facing criminal charges in New York. It is unclear the nature of these charges but they range from drug charges and physical coercion. Appellant also had an open warrant for his arrest, to which it is unclear whether he has surrendered to the New York Police Department. After being barred contact with B.C., Appellant requested a paternity test, believing that if it was proven that he was not the child's biological father, the child would be removed from Niece's home.

         A paternity test was conducted on February 19, 2016, and the test results confirmed what Appellant and mother had already known; that Appellant was not B.C.'s biological father. Shortly after taking the paternity test, Appellant was charged, arrested, and incarcerated in the state of New York. As a result of the genetic test's findings, the Department filed a petition for guardianship of B.C., with the right to consent to adoption, and B.C. was returned from North Carolina to Maryland and placed with his original foster family. On September 16, 2016, the Department filed a Motion to Determine Exclusion of Paternity, which the juvenile court granted. Several months later, the Department filed a Judicial Notice of Paternity Exclusion and requested that Appellant be stricken as a party in the CINA and TPR proceedings; the juvenile court granted the motion on December 5, 2016.

         The juvenile court conducted hearings on both of the Department's motions. Appellant argued that although he was not the biological father of B.C., he should be recognized as B.C.'s father by virtue of having been married to the child's mother at the time of the child's birth, his name was on the child's birth certificate, and he held himself out to be the child's father. The juvenile court determined that Appellant had neither lived in the same household as the child, nor established a "bonded, dependent relationship parental in nature." Accordingly, the juvenile court concluded that it was in the child's best interest to exclude Appellant as a parent. It is from these orders that Appellant appeals.

         Standard of Review

         The fundamental right of a parent, to parent their child, without interference from the State, is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. See Boswell v. Boswell, 352 Md. 204, 217-20 (1998)("A parent has a fundamental right to the care and custody of his or her child. The United States Supreme Court has upheld the rights of parents regarding the care, custody, and management of their children…"); see also, In re Mark M., 365 Md. 687, 705 (2001)("A parent's interest in raising a child is, no doubt, a fundamental right, recognized by the United States Supreme Court and this Court."). This fundamental right cannot be infringed upon by the State, or any State agency, unless clearly justified. See In re Adoption/Guardianship No. 95195062/CAD In the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, 116 Md.App. 443 (1997)("Termination of parental rights, however, implicates the fundamental constitutional right to raise one's own child. Because this right is 'so fundamental… it may not be taken away unless clearly justified.'") (internal citations omitted). Because the termination of parental rights is total, irrevocable, and leaves the parent with no right to visit or communicate with the child, [2] it is held to three different, but interrelated, standards: (1) a clearly erroneous standard, applicable to the juvenile court's factual finding; (2) a de novo standard, applicable to the juvenile court's legal conclusion; and (3) "when the appellate court views the ultimate conclusion of the [juvenile court] founded upon sound legal principles and based upon factual findings that are not clearly erroneous, the [juvenile court's] decision should be disturbed only if there has been a clear abuse of discretion." See In re Yve S., 373 Md. 551, 586 (2003)(citing Davis v. Davis, 280 Md. 119 (1977)).

         Moreover, when the Department seeks to terminate parental rights, without the consent of the parent, the standard is whether the termination of rights would be in the best interest of the child. In re Abigail C., 138 Md.App. 570 (2001). To determine what is in the child's best interest, the court must consider the factors enumerated in Md. Code Family Law § 5-323 (c). Additionally, when the child has been adjudicated CINA, the court must consider the factors set forth in FL §5-323(d) as well. See In re Adoption/Guardianship No. T97036005, 358 Md. 1 (2000)("The best interest of the child must be determined only after the court considers the required factors listed in F.L. §5-[323](c) and (d)."). Because the trial court's decision may forever deprive the parent of his or her fundamental parental rights, this Court must make express findings of fact respecting all of the applicable statutory factors of FL § 5-323.

         In reviewing the juvenile court's decision

[o]ur function ... is not to determine whether, on the evidence, we might have reached a different conclusion. Rather, it is to decide only whether there was sufficient evidence-by a clear and convincing standard-to support the chancellor's determination that it would be in the best interest of [the child] to terminate the parental rights of the natural [parent]. In making this decision, we must assume the truth of all the evidence, and of all of the favorable inferences fairly deducible therefrom, tending to support the factual conclusion of the trial court.

In re Abigail C., 138 Md.App. 570, 587 (2001) (quoting In re Adoption No. 09598, 77 Md.

         App. 511, 518 (1989)). In reviewing the juvenile court's decision, we must first determine whether the court considered the statutory criteria; second, whether its factual determinations were clearly erroneous; third, whether the court applied the law; and finally, whether it abused its discretion in making its determination. Id.


         I. September 15, 2016 Hearing Terminating Appellant's Parental Rights

         A. Parties' Contentions

          Appellant argues that the juvenile court abused its discretion when it determined that he was not B.C.'s presumptive father. First, he contends, because he was married to the child's mother at the time - making him the presumptive father, was identified as the father on the child's birth certificate, and no other individual claimed to be the child's father the court abused its discretion in terminating his parental rights. Second, Appellant maintains that because it was not he that took legal action to disestablish his paternal rights, but the Department, that the Department acted outside of the scope of its authority and did not have standing to challenge Appellant's paternity. Lastly, Appellant argues that even if the court had the authority to disestablish paternity, the court abused its discretion because it was not in the child's best interest.[3] We disagree.

         Both Appellees - the child and the Department ("Appellees"), respond that because Appellant is not B.C.'s biological father, he does not "have a basis for a finding of paternity under any statutory law in Maryland." Moreover, Appellees contend that Appellant is not a de facto parent. Thus, the court ...

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