Judge defends custody decision

Court rules also blamed in child theft

May 26, 2001|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore judge is defending his actions in a 1996 case that gave a former Harford County woman temporary custody of someone else's child.

Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy said yesterday that he had no way of knowing that documents he relied on to make his decision had been falsified.

McCurdy also blamed the mistake on established court procedures for child custody cases.

"The way our Maryland rules are drafted and the way the common law is, it presumes at least people who make oaths and affidavits are telling the truth," McCurdy said.

"If someone commits a very skillful and sophisticated fraud on everyone involved, unfortunately, as hard as I try, I do not have ESP and cannot look at someone and say, `Oh boy, this person is lying,'" the judge said.

At issue is the abduction of 9-year old Caitlyn Crowther, who police say went missing last June after her baby sitter persuaded McCurdy to give her temporary custody of the child.

Caitlyn was reunited with her mother, Donna L. Snyder, on Wednesday after Harford County sheriff's detectives and FBI agents found the child with the baby sitter in Hampton, Va.

The baby sitter -- Maria L. Baughman, 49 -- has been charged in a warrant with child-stealing.

On Thursday, Baughman told a Norfolk, Va., television station she is innocent and that she was protecting the girl from her biological mother.

"Yes, she is my daughter and she still is," Baughman told a reporter from WVEC-TV in an interview at the Hampton city jail, where she is being held.

The case began in 1995 when Snyder -- then a single mother working two jobs -- agreed to let her daughter stay with Baughman at Baughman's home in Middle River. Snyder was working long hours during the week but visited Caitlyn every weekend.

In October 1996, Baughman went to Baltimore Circuit Court to seek temporary custody of Caitlyn, police said.

Baughman told the court that she was the child's aunt and that Snyder was moving to Chicago to take care of a sick relative.

Snyder, who did not know about the request, is not related to Baughman and does not have relatives in Chicago, according to court documents.

Baughman produced two documents claiming Caitlyn's mother and father agreed to give her temporary custody.

The documents, which contained a notary seal, had forged signatures, according to court documents.

McCurdy used that information to grant the custody request in November 1996.

"If someone committed a fraud on the court, a fraud on the notary, a fraud on the lawyer, then of course that can happen," McCurdy said, noting judges rely on affidavits "hundreds of times" when determining custody cases.

McCurdy's decision was reversed in March by another Baltimore Circuit Court judge after Snyder hired a lawyer who showed that the documents produced at the custody hearing were forgeries. The lawyer, Brian S. Brown, was retained after Baughman and Caitlyn disappeared in June.

Brown said yesterday that McCurdy acted appropriately. He blamed a crowded court system and lax standards for the mistake.

"The judge saw pleadings in front of him, he has had no reason to doubt anything and he signs the order," Brown said. "It is just a flaw in the system, there just needs to be another check."

Brown blamed the notary for authorizing forged signatures.

Barbara Babb, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, would not comment specifically on the Baughman case, but said most judges are very careful before they make decisions in child custody cases.

"No court will grant custody to a nonbiological parent without some certification and assurance the other side has been notified," said Babb, an expert on family law.

McCurdy said that until now, he has never seen a case where forged documents and affidavits were used to gain custody of a child.

After Baughman won custody of Caitlyn, McCurdy's custody order was falsified -- the word "temporary" changed to "full," according to court documents filed by Brown.

Then, a separate judicial order was created, with a false case number and McCurdy's signature forged on it, to gain control of Caitlyn's medical and school records, court documents say.

Baughman faces up to 20 years in prison if she is convicted of child-stealing.

She told WVEC that she would do the same thing again to save Caitlyn from Snyder.

Brown acknowledged that Snyder had "problems in her past" but has resolved them.

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