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  New Child Custody Standard Sought
Legislation Would Place Safety Ahead of Parents' Rights

By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 1998; Page D05

Saying that a child's safety has to outweigh a parent's traditional claim on custody, top Maryland legislative leaders yesterday proposed new legislation that would force parents in some abuse cases to show they are fit to raise their children.

Supporters said the proposals are a response to two highly publicized child abuse cases in Montgomery County and another in Baltimore County last year in which a child died. The measures would mark a significant change in how state law would govern cases of children allegedly abused by their parents.

If approved by the General Assembly, the plan would also bring Maryland into compliance with new federal legislation that requires states to give priority to children's safety over parents' rights in order to receive federal money for foster care and adoption services. Maryland received about $75 million in such money this fiscal year.

The changes required by federal law and advanced by supporters in Maryland would change how judges consider child custody cases. Under current law, deference is given to the rights of biological parents, as highlighted in the recent case of Latrena Pixley, who was allowed custody of her 2-year-old son even though she had been convicted of murdering her infant daughter in 1992. To deny a biological parent custody, lawyers must show that the parent abused or neglected the child in question and that the biological parent is unfit.

Supporters of the new measures, including House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), said children's safety must be the primary concern. They also said state law should be changed so that parents convicted of violent crimes against any of their children or other family members would have to prove they are fit parents before being awarded custody.

"It represents a shift in the way we will be protecting children, because we're asking the courts to view the safety of the child as the ultimate concern," Taylor said at a State House news conference.

The proposal also requires social workers to move more quickly to find a permanent home for children in foster care -- another requirement of the federal legislation. Typically, it takes 24 months to find permanent homes; the new initiative would reduce that to 15 months.

The General Assembly considered but did not pass similar legislation last year -- before the publicized cases occurred. Taylor's strong backing of the proposal, along with the support of other key members of the House leadership, will give the proposal momentum. However, Taylor said there probably would be strong debate over suppressing parents' rights.

"Obviously, these tragic events . . . have put this issue on the front burner," Taylor said. Before those cases, he said, "there was no consensus to move forward."

The Pixley case attracted national attention, with many criticizing Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Michael D. Mason's decision to grant the mother custody.

If the proposed changes had been in place at the time of that case, proponents said, Pixley would have had to prove she was a fit parent to gain custody. And, they said, Mason would have had strong legal authority to give deference to concerns about the safety of Pixley's son.

Proponents said they were also moved by another Montgomery County case, in which a 5-year-old was brutalized by his father's girlfriend, who tied him to a bedpost and force-fed him hot peppers, which damaged his liver. The girlfriend, Alba Ingrid Scarpelli, was convicted in November of child abuse, and the boy's father, Alan Lee Holmes, pleaded guilty to similar charges.

Advocates for children said they welcomed the proposed changes.

"Montgomery County is responding to the federal legislation and taking a strong stand about the safety of children," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth Inc.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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