The Appeals Court “Exceptional Circumstances” Decision

The Appeals Court “Exceptional Circumstances” DecisionThe Appellate Court of Maryland recently made a significant ruling regarding de facto parenting and exceptional circumstances in custody cases. The court clarified that an individual involved in a child’s upbringing cannot be considered a de facto parent unless both legal parents consented to and fostered the parent-like relationship. However, custody can still be transferred if exceptional circumstances, such as neglect, are present and deemed to be in the child’s best interest.

In a specific case involving a child whose parents struggled with drug addiction, the court overturned a judge’s decision to grant de facto parenthood to the maternal grandparents but upheld the custody award to them based on the exceptional circumstance of neglect. This ruling highlights the distinction between exceptional circumstances and the consent requirement, emphasizing the need to consider the child’s best interest while respecting parental rights.

When neglect leads to a change in custody

The Appellate Court of Maryland has ruled that an adult intimately involved in a child’s upbringing cannot be considered a “de facto parent” with visitation or custody rights unless both legal parents consented to and fostered the parent-like relationship. However, custody can still be transferred if “exceptional circumstances,” such as neglect, are shown to warrant the transfer in the child’s best interest. Recently, the court overturned a judge’s decision to grant de facto parenthood to a child’s maternal grandparents but upheld the custody arrangement to the grandparents based on neglect.

The court clarified that the exceptional circumstances test for establishing custody by a third party should not be confused with the consent requirement for de facto parenthood. The decision emphasizes that substituting exceptional circumstances for the consent of legal parents would potentially grant constitutional parental standing rights to numerous parties.

The Court’s ruling means that the nearly three-year-old child remains in the custody of the maternal grandparents, who were awarded temporary custody after the parents’ drug overdose. The father sought custody or a graduated access plan, while the mother’s whereabouts are unknown. The court agreed that the grandparents could not be deemed de facto parents without the father’s consent, but exceptional circumstances, including the father’s neglect, warranted granting custody to the grandparents.

The decision restores the father’s superior right to custody once he is deemed fit, and the exceptional circumstances no longer exist. The grandparents’ attorney disagreed with the court’s decision regarding de facto parenthood but stated that they have no plans to seek further review. The attorney suggested that the legislature should address the issue to ensure custody for grandparents in cases where parents battling drug addiction are unable to care for their children or provide consent for de facto parenthood.

What is de facto parenting?

De facto parenting refers to a legal recognition where a non-biological, non-adoptive adult has assumed a parental role in a child’s life, leading to potential entitlement to custody and visitation rights. The court determines this status based on the strength of the relationship developed between the adult and child.
Factors that may contribute to the court awarding de facto parent status include:

  • Consent and encouragement of one legal parent
  • Cohabitation with the child
  • Performance of significant parental duties
  • Establishment of a strong parent-child bond

Examples of de facto parenting scenarios include a family friend providing care to a runaway child with unfit parents, and stepparents developing a parental relationship with their spouse’s child from a previous relationship. Additionally, in some circumstances de facto parenting could apply to LGBTQ parents who, having jointly raised children who may have only been biologically related to one of the parents and who did not pursue a second parent adoption, see their marriage subsequently ended in divorce.

What are “exceptional circumstances”?

In usual cases, the court will honor the wishes of the custodial parent on matters of visitation, presuming that the parent has the best interests of the child in mind. If a third party is acting as guardian for a child (such as a grandparent), and they wish to restrict the parents from visiting, they must prove that the parents are unfit or the requirements of an “exceptional circumstance” are met.

The People’s Law Library of Maryland states that to determine whether or not a parent is “unfit,” the court may consider whether:

  • The parent has neglected the child by manifesting such indifference to the child’s welfare that it reflects a lack of intent or an inability to discharge his or her parental duties.
  • The parent has abandoned the child.
  • There is evidence that the parent inflicted or allowed another person to inflict physical or mental injury on the child, including, but not limited to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
  • The parent suffers from an emotional or mental illness that has a detrimental impact on the parent’s ability to care and provide for the child.
  • The parent otherwise demonstrates a renunciation of his or her duties to care and provide for the child.
  • The parent has engaged in behavior or conduct that is detrimental to the child’s welfare.

Unfitness applies only to the condition/state of/actions of the parent/s.

Exceptional circumstances can be similar, but include general situational circumstances. To prove that “exceptional circumstances” are present, the court may look at these following factors:

  • The length of time the child has been away from the biological parent
  • The age of the child when care was assumed by the third party
  • The possible emotional effect on the child of a change of custody
  • The period of time which elapsed before the parent sought to reclaim the child
  • The nature and strength of the ties between the child and the third party custodian
  • The intensity and genuineness of the parent’s desire to have the child
  • The stability and certainty as to the child’s future in the custody of the parent

In all cases, it is up to the judge to determine what is best for the child’s welfare.

How can a Bethesda family law attorney help me gain parental rights?

If you are seeking to gain parental rights of a child whose current parents are involved in an exceptional circumstance or are neglecting their child, a Bethesda family law attorney can advocate for your interests in court, presenting compelling arguments to demonstrate that it is in the best interest of the child for you to have parental rights. They will work to establish that the child’s current parents are neglectful or that exceptional circumstances exist, which warrant a transfer of custody or visitation rights.

At McCabe Russell PA, we will help you navigate the complexities of the legal system, ensuring that all necessary documents are prepared accurately and submitted on time. We will represent you during hearings and negotiations, fighting for your rights and presenting evidence that supports your position. Additionally, we will collaborate with other professionals, such as social workers or psychologists, to gather expert opinions or evaluations that strengthen your case.

Throughout the process, we will provide guidance and support, helping you make informed decisions that prioritize the child’s well-being. We will advocate for a resolution that ensures the child’s safety, stability, and best interests are upheld while pursuing the parental rights you seek.

It’s essential to work closely with an experienced Bethesda attorney who focuses on family law and has a deep understanding of child custody and visitation matters. We will provide the necessary legal expertise and representation to help you navigate the complexities of the legal system and increase your chances of achieving a favorable outcome in gaining parental rights. To schedule a consultation, call our office today, or use our contact form. Our team serves Fulton, Bethesda, Rockville, and Columbia for your convenience.