Tougher law on custody sought in the House

January 29, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

A month after a Montgomery County woman won custody of her 2-year-old son even though she had killed her infant daughter, Maryland House leaders yesterday urged changing state law to emphasize children's safety over parental rights.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said the proposal would make it easier to remove children permanently from abusive homes because the child's welfare would come before attempts to reunite a family.

"There is a legitimate interest in keeping the child with the biological parent," said Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat. "But there are legitimate instances where it's abundantly clear that keeping the child with his or her biological parents may not be in the best interest of the child."

The bill's key point is a presumption that a child is at risk if a parent is convicted of a violent domestic crime. The parent would have to prove otherwise to retain custody.

Maryland judges must consider a range of factors, from social services the family received to the child's emotional attachment to a parent, in deciding whether to terminate parental rights. The law calls for protecting children from "unnecessary separation from their natural parents," and the practice in Maryland and across the nation since the early 1980s has been to try to keep families together.

Last fall, Congress and President Clinton approved new provisions to move children in foster care more quickly into permanent homes. The law also permits social service agencies, with a judge's approval, to end attempts to reunify families if a parent has repeatedly abused a child.

The proposal unveiled yesterday goes beyond the federal changes by spelling out that the child's welfare must come first, said Lynda G. Fox, deputy secretary of the Department of Human Resources.

"It's significant," she said, adding the bill would build on legislation the department intends to introduce to bring Maryland in line with the federal provisions. "It's consistent with the language, but it goes a step farther."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger joined Taylor in pushing the initiative. Both executives have had to deal with gruesome child abuse cases.

Duncan said he felt helpless when a county judge granted Latrena Pixley custody of her son last month. Pixley pleaded guilty in 1993 to smothering her 6-week-old daughter. "We've had years of failure. I don't know how we can say we should just keep going on the same way," he said.

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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