Argued: June 1, 2018
Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. T16106011
Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten,
consider here whether allowing a child to remain indefinitely
in the custody of a third party, without terminating the
parental rights of both parents, constitutes a proper
exercise of judicial discretion consistent with the relevant
provisions of the Family Law Article. As will be explained,
the law allows for such discretionary exercise so long as the
decision is grounded in the statutory requirements, and
supported by the record. In that regard, pursuit of the best
interest of the child remains the overarching goal in
proceedings involving the termination of parental rights
("TPR") pursuant to Md. Code (1984, 2012 Repl.
Vol.), § 5-323 of the Family Law Article ("Fam.
Law"). In the present case, a rational finding exists
that a continued relationship with C.E.'s father, H.E.
("Father") serves C.E.'s best interest, even
where complete custodial reunification is not apparent. It
was not therefore an abuse of discretion for the juvenile
court to decline to terminate Father's parental rights.
However, in the matter of C.E.'s mother, C.D.
("Mother"), the juvenile court's determination
that a continued parental relationship served C.E.'s best
interest lacked consideration of the relevant statutory
considerations found in Fam. Law § 5-323. Accordingly,
we affirm in part, and reverse in part, the judgment of the
("C.E." or "the child") is a male child,
born in May 2014, to Mother and Father. All of Mother's
six other children have entered the foster care system
through removal by the Baltimore City Department of Social
lengthy, litigious history of C.E. began shortly after he was
born prematurely with complications arising from low birth
weight. Before C.E. left the hospital, the Department filed
for emergency shelter care in the Circuit Court for Baltimore
City. At a hearing on July 11, 2014, the juvenile court
granted the Department's request for temporary care and
custody of C.E., and placed him with distant relatives while
the Department began a Child in Need of Assistance
("CINA") proceedings. On June 16, 2015, the
juvenile court found C.E. to be a CINA and awarded custody to
the Department for continued relative placement. On
Mother's appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, the
Court affirmed the judgment of the juvenile court. See In
re C.E., No. 0925, Sept. Term, 2015 (Md. Ct. of Sp.
App., December 15, 2015), cert. denied, 446
Md. 705, 133 A.3d 1110 (2016).
April 20, 2016, the juvenile court held a hearing regarding
the Department's motion to waive its obligation to
continue to make reasonable efforts to reunify Mother with
C.E. The juvenile court granted the Department's motion
to waive reunification efforts, concluding that it lacked
discretion to deny the motion under §
3-812(d) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings
Article ("Cts. & Jud. Proc") of the Maryland
Code, in light of the prior involuntary terminations of
Mother's parental rights over four of C.E.'s
siblings. Mother appealed. The Court of Special Appeals
determined that the juvenile court's decision to waive
reasonable efforts for reunification was not appealable and
therefore dismissed the appeal. In re C.E., No. 0464
Sept. Term 2016, 2016 WL 7235560 (Md. Ct. Spec. App., Dec.
14, 2016), aff'd, 456 Md. 209, 172 A.3d 476
this Court's determination on waiver, the Department
filed a Petition for Guardianship with the Right to Consent
to Adoption or Long Term Care Short of Adoption. On September
1, 2017, the juvenile court denied the Department's
petition. After noting timely appeals to the Court of Special
Appeals, C.E. and the Department (collectively,
"Petitioners") filed petitions for writ of
certiorari, which this Court granted on February 5,
2018. Mother and Father (collectively,
"Respondents" or "the parents")
responded. Together, Petitioners collectively pose the
following five questions before this Court:
1. Whether a CINA child has a protected interest in achieving
a timely permanency plan of adoption that transcends his
parents' right to raise him, where the three (3) year old
child has resided in the same relatives' home since birth
and where the trial court found, by clear and convincing
evidence, that reunification is "unachievable….in
the foreseeable future"?
2. Whether it is error of law for a court to change a CINA
child's permanency plan in a [g]uardianship proceeding
conducted pursuant to [Family Law] 5-323?
3. Whether the court's application of its findings of
exceptional circumstances to justify custody and guardianship
to relatives instead of using the exceptional circumstances
to support a grant of guardianship, was an error of law in
contravention of the statute's clear preference for
adoption over custody and guardianship?
4. Did the juvenile court err when it failed to find that
Father was unfit to remain C.E.'s legal father in light
of its finding, by clear and convincing evidence, that there
was no likelihood that Father would ever be able to safely
care for C.E.?
5. Did the juvenile court err as a matter of law in its
exceptional circumstances analysis, by elevating an
incidental "parental" relationship over C.E.'s
best interests in achieving the permanence afforded by
reasons that follow, we hold that that the juvenile court
acted within its discretion to deny the Department's
petition to terminate Father's parental rights, where it
is not detrimental to the best interest of the child for the
parental relationship to remain intact. However, the juvenile
court abused its discretion to grant the Department's TPR
petition as to Mother, where a review of the relevant
statutory factors in § 5-323(d) resulted in a finding of
unfitness and exceptional circumstances by clear and
C.E. was born prematurely in May 2014, he was placed in the
Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Johns Hopkins Hospital, and
later transferred to Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital for
further care. One of the Department's caseworkers, Nia
Noakes, responded to a "risk of harm" report by
Johns Hopkins Hospital and request for a safety assessment of
a newborn. Upon receipt of the initial report, Ms. Noakes
completed a safety assessment of Mother's home with both
parents present. Ms. Noakes also consulted the
Department's records to determine whether the family had
a history with Child Protective Services, at which point she
discovered that the Department removed Mother's other
children from her care. Thereafter, Ms. Noakes held a Family
Involvement Meeting ("FIM") to determine whether C.E.
could safely be placed with either Mother or Father. In light
of Mother's extensive child protective services
interactions and mental health history, the Department
determined that C.E. would not be safe with Mother. Father
was also not suitable to care for C.E. because he resided in
a senior housing complex, which only allowed children to
visit for a maximum of two weeks.
11, 2014, the juvenile court authorized C.E.'s
shelter-care placement after his hospital discharge, because
Mother "has a history of posing a threat to
children" and a long history of psychological conditions
that "could prove a safety risk[.]" After the
juvenile court granted shelter care, the Department
transferred the case to Diana Wade Williams as the permanency
caseworker. Two weeks later, the juvenile master approved the
CINA petition and ordered C.E.'s placement in the
June or early July 2014, Mother telephoned her cousin, Ms.
B., advised her that she could not take C.E. home from the
hospital, and asked for permission to provide her contact
information to Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital and the
Department. Mother and Ms. B. had not been in contact for
years prior to C.E.'s birth, and only reconnected when
Mother found Ms. B. on Facebook. About one hour after
Mother's call, Ms. Wade Williams contacted Ms. B. and
requested permission to conduct a background check. By July
15, 2014, Ms. B. and her husband, Mr. B., passed the
necessary clearances. Upon C.E.'s July 21, 2014 hospital
discharge, the Department placed C.E. with Mr. and Ms. B.,
where he has remained.
C.E.'s release from the hospital, C.E. received health
intervention services until January 2015. C.E. continues to
have seizures, and receives medication for epilepsy by a
neurologist. C.E. also exhibits delays in physical growth and
has problems with communication, executive functions, and
attention deficit. He is undergoing a formal diagnostic
process at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center to determine
whether he is on the autism spectrum. Reports prepared by
Laurie Higginbotham, LCSW-C, a clinical social work
supervisor for the Department, otherwise indicate that C.E.
takes direction from Mr. and Ms. B. and is happy in their
home. Mr. and Ms. B. want to adopt C.E. and are willing to
allow Mother and Father to have occasional on-going contact
with C.E. at a neutral location.
1996, the Department has interacted with Mother arising from
abuse and neglect allegations involving her six children.
Because of her inability to care for her children, Mother
lost parental rights to four of her six children: I.S., L.B.,
J.D., and M.D. Mother's second child, I.S., was found to
be a CINA in 1998. Her third child, L.B., was also found to
be a CINA in 1999. In 2003, following a contested hearing, a
juvenile court terminated Mother's parental rights over
both I.S. and L.B. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the
juvenile court's termination of Mother's parental
rights. See In re Adoption of India S., No. 2032,
Sept. Term 2003 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Nov. 29, 2004).
Mother's fourth and fifth children, J.D. and M.D., were
both found to be CINA in 2012. After a contested hearing in
2014, Mother's parental rights with respect to J.D. and
M.D. were also terminated. Again, the Court of Special
Appeals affirmed. In re Adoption of Joy D., No.
2307, Sept. Term 2014, 2015 WL 5821580 (Md. Ct. Spec. App.
Aug. 13, 2015). Mother's other son, J.S.B., was in foster
care for fourteen years, aging out on his twenty-first
birthday in 2012. When Mother had her sixth child, C.E., in
2014, the Department intervened once again. In re
C.E., No. 0925, Sept. Term 2015 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Dec.
15, 2015), cert. denied, 446 Md. 705 (2016).
has a well-documented history of mental illness, causing her
to lash out against her children. Her "previous mental
health diagnoses include paranoia, adjustment disorder, major
depression, somatization disorder, borderline personality
disorder, mania, and bipolar affective disorder." In
re C.E., 456 Md. at 211, 172 A.3d at 477. Mother
believed her daughter J.D. required treatment by a
"licensed professional exorcist, a psychic spiritual
adviser, a polygraph expert and a voodoo witch doctor."
Mother referred to J.D. as "evil devil[, ]"
"demon of hell," and requested she be hospitalized
to excise demons. In re Joy D., 216 Md.App. 58, 65,
84 A.3d 223, 227 (2014), abrogated by In re C.E.,
456 Md. at 209, 172 A.3d at 476. Mother threatened to kill
one of the Department's social workers, which led to J.D.
becoming increasingly afraid and crying uncontrollably.
Similarly, Mother exhibited anxious and angry behavior toward
M.D. Mother was observed beating M.D.'s back when he was
twenty-one months old. Id. at 64, 84 A.3d at 226.
Throughout the proceedings involving Mother's other five
children, the Department provided numerous services to assist
with her mental health issues, but none were successful.
C.E.'s birth, the Department attempted to enter into
service agreements with Mother, and made numerous referrals
for mental health services. During the summer of 2014, Mother
received treatment from Stanley Karanja, LCPC, at Therapeutic
Living for Families. Mother filed a complaint against him,
claiming that he engaged in unethical practices, rendered
false diagnoses, and falsified her mental health records.
Mother lodged similar complaints against three of her
previous therapists at three different treatment facilities.
In March 2015, Mother participated in three counseling
sessions with Turn Around, Inc., an agency that provides
services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
On March 30, 2015, Turn Around Inc. recommended that Mother
receive more intensive services from an in-home program such
as Mosaic Community Services Psychiatric Rehabilitation
Program. Mother attended a May 21, 2015 appointment with
Mosaic Community Services Psychiatric Rehabilitation Program
and attended a diagnostic evaluation on June 12, 2015.
However, Mother requested a referral to Hebron House Inc., a
therapy program, where she participated in another assessment
on June 26, 2015. Mother claimed she was no longer
comfortable with the assigned therapist, and requested that
Hebron House Inc. assign another therapist and provide
therapy during Mother's visitation with C.E. at the
Department. In 2015, during Mother's home-therapy
session, the therapist "felt threatened by
[Mother's] combative stance and she had to leave because
the atmosphere was no longer conducive for therapeutic
rapport building." As a result, Hebron House Inc. was
unwilling to continue to provide further therapy to her and
recommended outpatient psychiatric services through a
2015, Mother received mental health services from two other
programs but ceased therapy on her own volition. By March 3,
2016, Mother was receiving therapy through another program,
but was discharged after the treatment team "observed a
severe pattern of fault finding and no evidence of accepting
ownership of behaviors, experiences and outcomes on
[Mother's] part." The treatment providers concluded
that Mother was unwilling to address her mental health
problems and that her prognosis was poor if she did not
engage in appropriate services.
of 2016, Mother sought and received treatment again but
continued seeking out another therapist, hoping to be
reunited with her son. After August 2016, Mother did not seek
psychiatric treatment until January 1, 2017. Treatment
resumed at that time but was terminated on May 18, 2017 when
the Johns Hopkins Hospital Community Psychiatry program
discharged her because it "had not been able to
establish an effective physician/provider
relationship...." Mother filed a complaint with Johns
Hopkins Hospital Patient Relations Department, but remained
discharged. Mother claims that she suffers from legal abuse
syndrome, which is not a currently recognized mental illness,
as a result of the Department removing five other children
from her care. Otherwise, Mother denies that she has any
began his relationship with Mother in 2010, which was marked
with instances of angry outbursts by Father. Father is
employed full-time as a dishwasher. He has resided in senior
citizen housing since C.E.'s birth, which prohibits child
residents. Father's first child, who is an adult, entered
the foster care system during minority and was raised by
entered into a service agreement with the Department that was
in effect from July 11, 2014 to September 11, 2014, and
committed to finding housing where he could reside with C.E.
In July of 2014, the Department referred Father to the Center
for Urban Family's parenting classes, which occurred
twice a week for three months. Father initially did not
attend the classes until January 12, 2015. He completed a
weekly ten-week course on positive parenting skills. On June
17, 2017, the juvenile court determined that the Department
had made reasonable but unsuccessful efforts to reunify C.E.,
and ordered that the Department continue to supervise
Father's visits with C.E. Father was also ordered to
submit to clinical evaluation.
21, 2015, Father underwent the clinical evaluation. Brenda
Harriel, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker from the Court
Medical Services Office, is an expert in clinical and
forensic social work, with an emphasis on the diagnosis and
treatment of DSM-5 diagnoses and parenting assessment. Father
presented with symptoms of schizotypal personality disorder,
a pervasive, enduring pattern of distorted perceptions, which
in Ms. Harriel's estimation, is an untreatable
personality disorder. Ms. Harriel explained that Father
exhibited "symptoms of preoccupation with religion to
explain Respondent's [C.E.'s] development....
[C]ognitive, or perceptual distortions. He presented with odd
beliefs, peculiar behaviors, inappropriate or constrictive
affect, and reduced capacity for close relations." It
was Ms. Harriel's expert opinion that Father had "no
real interest in… taking care of" C.E. and that,
given his personality disorder and refusal to accept
services, he "would be unable to provide proper care
[for C.E.] in a constructive, protective, and nurturing
and Father's Visitation with C.E.
C.E.'s birth, the Department facilitated regular visits
between C.E., Mother, and Father. The visits were scheduled
weekly during 2014, and bi-weekly from 2015 to 2017. Both
parents attended most of the scheduled visits in 2014. In
2014, Mother canceled several visits, and sometimes when she
attended she refused to hold C.E. Mother additionally asked
to hold several visits as "phone visits."
2015, both Mother and Father attended all scheduled visits,
but not all visits in 2016. These visits were marked with
outbursts by C.E. towards his Mother, but generally positive
interactions with Father. The Department's notes indicate
that during the January 19, 2016 visit, C.E. would let Father
but not Mother hold him. During the February 23, 2016 visit,
when Mother tried to kiss C.E., he struck her in the face.
When Father went to the bathroom, C.E. cried and fell on the
floor until Father returned. In March of 2016, Mother refused
December 12, 2016, during Ms. Higginbotham's first visit,
there were no toys in the room. Ms. Higginbotham suggested
ways Mother and Father could interact with C.E., but Mother
was not receptive to these suggestions. Ms. Higginbotham
subsequently brought a few toys in from another room, and
encouraged Father to use them to engage C.E., but C.E. would
not cooperate. Mother became upset and left. Father fed C.E.
crackers sent by Mr. and Ms. B., one at a time, but C.E.
wanted the whole bag. C.E. threw his juice cup on the floor,
and spilled all the crackers trying to grab the bag. Father
tried to give him some yogurt with a spoon, but C.E. did not
want it. C.E. slapped the spoon and spilled the yogurt on
Father's pants. Thereafter, Father ended the visit. After
observing Father with C.E., Ms. Higginbotham opined that
Father sometimes interacted appropriately with C.E., but
caring for him consistently would likely be too stressful for
Father. In Ms. Higginbotham's opinion, C.E. required
focus and attention that Mother and Father could not provide.
In February of 2017, Mother ended her visit early when C.E.
again hit her in the face.
Juvenile Court's Decision
juvenile court concluded that it was not in C.E.'s best
interest to terminate Mother and Father's parental
rights, despite a finding that Mother was unfit by clear and
convincing evidence, that Father was unfit by a preponderance
of the evidence, and that exceptional circumstances existed
that would make a continued relationship with either parent
contrary to C.E.'s best interest. Based on these
findings, the juvenile court determined that it was in
C.E.'s best interest to change his permanency plan to
custody and guardianship to Mr. and Ms. B. The juvenile court
found by a preponderance of the evidence that reunification
with Mother or Father will likely never be achieved. The
juvenile court based this determination on both Mother and
Father's static personal and financial situations. The
court found that although Mother had a desire to be reunified
with C.E., "Mother is unable and or unwilling to engage
in sustained, consistent effective mental health treatment
that will allow her to safely manage the inevitable stress of
parenting now or ever." Similarly, the juvenile court
concluded that Father also possesses a sincere desire to be
reunified and parent C.E., but his apparent unfitness to
parent stemmed from both his mental health issues and his
unwillingness or inability to find housing for both C.E. and
him. Father's unfitness, however, rested in greater part
"upon his near total reliance on Mother to parent [C.E.]
when he is unavailable during extensive working hours."
Although a plan to utilize day care could provide a safe plan
for reunification, continued failures to treat Mother's
mental health issues indicate that Mother could not receive
this necessary support.
juvenile court reasoned that "[w]hile adoption remains
the gold standard of permanency where reunification is not
safely possible, in this case the very strong commitment of
relatives… to his care, convince this Court that
[C.E.] will have the benefit of stability and permanence with
the plan adopted here in childhood and into his
adulthood." While neither parent was able to care for
C.E., the juvenile court was convinced that C.E. has a
sufficient connection with his parents, particularly with
Father, to generate concern regarding the termination of the
parental relationship, and that visitation with Mother and
Father has episodically gone well.
juvenile court utilized the factors enumerated in Fam. Law
§ 5-323(d)(1), and analyzed the Department's efforts
with reunification services, the continued challenges to
Mother and Father's mental health, the significant
caregiving role that Mr. and Ms. B. play in C.E.'s life,
and the special relationship between C.E. and his father. The
court reasoned that neither parent had displayed essential
safe parenting skills toward C.E., particularly in response
to his possible autism spectrum behaviors, seizure disorder,
and speech development delays. Additionally, neither parent
had contributed financial support towards C.E.'s care and
maintenance. Following these considerations, the juvenile
court found that exceptional circumstances existed to change
C.E.'s permanency plan to guardianship with Mr. and Ms.
B., without terminating Mother and Father's parental
reviewing the decision of a juvenile court to terminate
parental rights, Maryland appellate courts employ three
different, but interrelated, standards of review. See In
re Adoption/Guardianship of Ta'Niya C., 417 Md. 90,
100, 8 A.3d 745, 750-51 (2010). Factual findings are reviewed
under the clearly erroneous standard; legal conclusions are
reviewed de novo, and the juvenile court's
"ultimate decision" is reviewed for an abuse of
discretion. See id.; see also In re
Adoption/Guardianship of C.A. & D.A., 234 Md.App.
30, 45, 168 A.3d 1088, 1097 (2017).
court's findings are clearly erroneous if they are not
supported by substantial evidence in the record. Murphy
v. 24th St. Cadillac Corp., 353 Md. 480, 497, 727 A.2d
915, 923 (1999). There is an abuse of discretion where
"no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the
trial court,' or when the court acts 'without
reference to any guiding rules or principles.'"
Santo v. Santo, 448 Md. 620, 625-26, 141 A.3d 74, 77
(2016) (quoting In re Adoption/Guardianship No.
3598, 347 Md. 295, 312, 701 A.2d 110');">701 A.2d 110,  (1997)). Put
another way, this Court will not reverse the juvenile