Representatives of two agencies have told a Harford County Circuit judge that a man convicted of child sexual abuse should not be be given legal custody of his 5-year-old daughter because it could emotionally harm the girl.
The child has been in hiding with her mother since August, when the woman fled to prevent her ex-husband from having a court-ordered, overnight visit with the girl.
The man is seeking full custody so he can hire private detectives to locate the girl and have her brought back to Maryland.
The county Department of Social Services, which has been awarded legal custody of the child, and the Legal Aid Bureau, Inc., which is representing the girl, argued yesterday against granting the father custody.
The agencies testified the child would suffer emotionally because she has no established relationship with her father. The parents divorced soon after the child was born.
Angela Eaves, a Legal Aid attorney representing the 5-year-old, opposed giving the father custody, saying it would be too traumatic since the child has not developed a relationship with him.
Rebecca Cole, a lawyer for the Harford Department of Social Services, told the court at a hearing on the custody issue, "It is the department's position that we would ask the court not to change custody to the father, because of the allegations made to this department."
Ms. Cole was referring to allegations made by the man's stepdaughter that led to his criminal prosecution in 1987.
The man, whose name is Dan, was convicted in 1987 by Harford Circuit Judge Cypert O. Whitfill of one count of child abuse for fondling a stepdaughter, who was 11 at the time, court records show. In 1988, Judge Whitfill struck the guilty finding, placed Dan on five years' probation and ordered him to attend therapy.
One expert has told the court that Dan poses no threat to the 5-year-old.
The parents' last name is not being used to protect the identity of the abused girl.
The mother, whose name is Mary, took the 5-year-old into hiding last August after Judge Whitfill ordered the child be sent on an overnight visit with her father to be supervised by his friends and family. Mary, who had legal custody of the girl when she fled, said she fears for the child's safety. She wants all visits between Dan and the child supervised by social services workers.
Yesterday's hearing was conducted by Harford Circuit Judge Maurice W. Baldwin Jr., who took over after Judge Whitfill stepped down from the case two weeks ago.
Judge Whitfill sealed the entire case file, but Judge Baldwin said yesterday that he would allow all further filings to be open to the public.
John C. Love, Dan's attorney, argued that the father should be awarded custody so the father can legally search for the child and have her returned to Maryland.
Mr. Love also argued against allowing the Department of Social Services to have custody.
"It is not in the best interest of the child to be dragged pillar to post," Mr. Love said.
DSS officials said a foster home has been selected should the child be found and returned to Maryland.
Robert P. Brophy Jr., a lawyer representing Mary, argued against awarding the father custody because of the man's past child abuse.
Judge Baldwin told Mr. Brophy, "I think I speak for most judges when I say I take a dim view of a parent hiding a child. If your client thinks she's walking into a panacea with a new judge who thinks it's all right to take a child into hiding, I don't."
Judge Baldwin asked the lawyers, "What about this finding by Judge Whitfill that this man poses no danger to the child by virtue of the testimony of the professionals who evaluated him?"
"We do not want custody changed to [Dan] under any circumstances," responded Mr. Brophy, Mary's lawyer.
Mr. Brophy also told Judge Baldwin that he and a lawyer in Kentucky plan to file to have the case transferred to Kentucky, where the woman was last living when she went into hiding.