For the first six years that Justus lived in foster homes, his father never called or visited. Even after his mother died and social workers mulled finding a family to adopt him, his father never came forward.

As far as a Montgomery County judge was concerned, the 12-year-old's father had essentially given up his parental rights. The judge named the county as the boy's official guardian.

But the boy argued--and a state appeals court now agrees--that one person was wrongly left out of the decision-making process: Justus himself.

"He did not want to cut those familial bonds," said the boy's attorney, Darlene Wakefield. "He said, 'My father might come back some day.' "

In a March decision made public last week, the state Court of Special Appeals ruled that a child has a constitutional right to a relationship with a parent that cannot be severed without due process.

The ruling means that "Justus K.," as he is identified in court documents, deserved a hearing of his own before his father's rights were terminated--even though his father had not objected to the termination himself.

It is the first of five similar cases now moving through Maryland's appellate courts, and part of a growing body of case law giving children more of a voice in legal matters that concern them.

Justus lived with his unmarried parents until he was almost 6 years old. In 1992, county investigators determined that his mother was unable to take care of her children and placed Justus and his three younger siblings in foster care.

Court documents do not describe why Justus's mother was deemed unfit, nor do they explain why his father was not able to take care of them. In 1994, Justus's mother died of AIDS.

In the meantime, Justus lived in four foster homes. For a while, he was placed with one of his sisters, but they were later separated. According to court documents, his father--identified only as "George W."--had no contact with him.

In 1997, the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services filed a petition for guardianship of Justus, with the goal of possibly finding an adoptive family for him. Under state law, his father was entitled to a hearing if he wanted to challenge the termination of his parental rights; however, county officials said they were unable to find George W.

Through his attorney, Justus filed notice that he opposed the move. But DHHS officials argued that only the parents--not the child--have the right to have their objections heard. The juvenile court judge granted guardianship to the county without holding a hearing for Justus.

But the Court of Special Appeals--Maryland's second-highest court--disagreed and overturned the guardianship order.

The appeals judges noted earlier rulings declaring that a child's relationship to a parent is equally important as the parent's to the child. If George W. had the right to a hearing, they said, so should Justus--who, after all, was not to blame for his family's breakup.

Although the boy lived with his father for only five years, the judges wrote, "Justus's developed relationships with his father, with its lasting emotional ramifications, did not evaporate when his father ceased maintaining contact with him."

The victory is largely a symbolic one for Justus, who remains in foster care, his father still absent from his life.

Lawyers for both sides said the ruling will not have a huge impact on the state's child-welfare system. There are relatively few cases in which the child, but not the parent, wants to challenge a guardianship petition.

Also, the ruling does not grant children the power to veto a guardianship decision; it just allows them to have their say in the court proceedings.

But attorney Wakefield argues that the ruling nonetheless is an important precedent for children's rights. "It gives him a forum to be able to put his position forward," she said.

DHHS does not plan to appeal the ruling, according to its attorney. Wakefield said she expects the county will withdraw its guardianship petition and instead move to place Justus in long-term foster care.