Mentally impaired parents seeking custody favored in court's ruling

Carroll department failed to help man, judges say

April 17, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The state's highest court handed disabled Marylanders and their advocates a victory yesterday, telling social service officials they must offer services tailored to the needs of mentally impaired parents who do not want their children placed for adoption.

In a 4-3 ruling, the Court of Appeals said social service officials must evaluate parents and then either offer or refer them to suitable programs - neither of which, it said, occurred in the case of a Westminster man fighting moves by the Carroll County Department of Social Services to make his children eligible for adoption.

The court majority said the department "failed" the 39-year-old man.

The court said the department decided with insufficient information that the man was mentally disabled; did not assess his needs; did not look to other agencies for programs aimed at disabled adults; and failed to provide adequate services for him to learn to take care of his children with the possibility that he might regain custody.

"We emphasize that a person of one particular intelligence quotient level may be different from another, but neither of them is impaired or enhanced. He or she is simply what they are. There are no inherently lesser beings in the eye of the law," Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote for the majority.

He said that parental rights "are the same where parents or children are alleged to be disabled."

The ruling, which overturned two lower court decisions, did not give "Mr. F," as he is known in court papers, custody of the 5- and 7-year-old children, who have spent most of their lives in foster care. Their mother gave up her parental rights.

Fred S. Hecker, lawyer for Mr. F, said yesterday that he had not reached his client, but was sure he would be delighted with the ruling.

The case infuriated advocates for the disabled, with 10 groups joining in a brief.

"This is a very large decision and very important decision for families," said Debra Gardner, legal director of the Public Justice Center, a Baltimore nonprofit group. "It is speaking to the rights of parents who have literacy problems. It is speaking to parents who are poor."

Lauren Young, legal director of the Maryland Disability Law Center, said the Carroll County agency "offered a cookie-cutter approach to services, none of which would deal with the problems he was having."

The court was deeply divided, with Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and Judges John C. Eldrige and Lynne A. Battaglia joining Cathell to say the social service agency failed to prove its case.

In two dissenting opinions, Judges Irma S. Raker, Alan M. Wilner and Glenn T. Harrell said they did not see the case as about discrimination, but about a well-intentioned man who, evidence showed, was unlikely to be able to take care of his children.

Assistant Attorney General Nancy C. Hopkins, lawyer for the Carroll County Department of Social Services, said she expects the department will work with Mr. F. to "determine what services might be available through other agencies in order to enable him to assume a greater role with the children."

Mr. F. finished a Carroll County vocational high school program in 1982, but was close to illiterate. He took reading classes in recent years, has a driver's license, has held jobs and visited with his children, according to court papers.

He attended the December court hearing, and afterward said that though he did not understand all of the legal issues, he loved his children. "I just want to watch my kids grow, and I want to watch them sleep. I just want to be a good father," he said.

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