By Shanta Trivedi, CFCC Faculty Director
When the Maryland State Legislature met for its 445th session this spring, there were a flurry of important pieces of proposed legislation in the areas of family law, domestic violence, juvenile law, and child welfare that would positively impact Baltimore’s families. While many important bills passed, too many crucial bills failed to advance. In this article, we highlight a few key bills from this session:
- SB36/HB14, “Family Law – Grounds for Divorce,” which will allow divorces to proceed on the no-fault grounds of “irreconcilable differences.”
- SB653/HB232, “Child in Need of Assistance – Neglect – Cannabis Use,” will make clear that marijuana use alone, without proof of harm to the child, will not be considered neglect.
- HB630, “Utility Account Holders – Victims of Abuse – Protections,” will allow survivors of violence to move forward with their lives in a new residence.
- SB93/HB096, the “Youth Equity and Safety (YES) Act” failed to advance for the 13th year in a row. The Yes ACT would end the practice of charging children under 18 as adults.
- HB 1020, “Child Custody – Legal Decision Making and Parenting Time,” would have codified case law regarding custody decisions so as to “take away the mystery of how and why a judge makes a particular decision.”
- SB75/HB523, “Prevention of Forced Infant Separation Act,” which did not advance for the second year in a row, would allow infants to stay with their incarcerated mothers for the first year of their lives and have liberal visitation with their other parent.
- If it had passed, HB324, “Child Abuse and Neglect – Domestic Violence,” would have made Maryland the first state in the country to protect survivors of violence from being charged with neglect simply because they were in an abusive relationship.
In a huge victory, SB36/HB14, “Family Law- Grounds for Divorce,” will remove the fault grounds such as adultery and cruelty, and allow couples who no longer wish to be married to proceed on the no-fault grounds of “irreconcilable differences.” Further, the law reduces the period of required separation from 12-months separation grounds to 6 months. As Maryland Legal Aid attorney and University of Baltimore Law School alumnus, Brett Smoot testified, [d]ivorce proceedings allow litigants to resolve important financial aspects of the marriage. Low-income litigants are denied access to this mechanism when it is not financially feasible to pay for two separate households before resolving issues of marital property, child support, spousal support, or use and possession of the family home.” The new law clarifies that even if couples live together, as long as they are leading separate lives, they will be considered to have lived separate and apart for purposes of the statute.
SB653/HB0232, “Child in Need of Assistance – Neglect – Cannabis Use,” will make clear that marijuana use alone, without proof of harm to the child, will not be considered neglect. As I testified in front of the House, “HB 232 simply clarifies that marijuana use does not equate to unfitness.” Marijuana use has been used as a reason to remove children or prevent them from reunifying with their families, particularly when those families are low-income and/or Black. As Natasha Khalfani of the Office of the Public Defender’s Parental Defense Division explained, “the same unequal surveillance and policing that results in Black people being arrested for marijuana possession at three times the rate of white people (despite equivalent rates of use), also draws families of color disproportionately into the child welfare system.” HB 232’s passage will mean that fewer children experience the irreversible trauma of being separated from their families for the sole reason that their parents use cannabis. This measure is especially important given that recreational marijuana use will soon be legal in Maryland.
HB630, “Utility Account Holders – Victims of Abuse – Protections,” is an important bill that will allow survivors of violence to move forward with their lives in a new residence. This change will allow survivors of violence to terminate their future liability on utility accounts and to establish new accounts, regardless of whether arrearages exist on their old accounts. Jessica Emerson of the Human Trafficking Prevention Project at the University of Baltimore School of Law explained “[d]omestic violence service providers in Maryland report that one of the significant issues that they navigate with victims when planning a safe exit is utility accounts. They encounter obstacles in establishing new accounts often because there are existing accounts. Victims may not even have known their names were on those accounts at all and there may be money owed.” According to Laure Ruth of the Women’s Law Center “[p]eople who are experiencing domestic violence often cannot leave their abuser because of the intertwining, often financially, of their lives with their abuser. Things such as sharing a utility account, having a telephone plan together and the like are reasons that people cannot leave the relationship or home where the abuse is occurring.”
For the 13th year in a row, SB093/HB096, the “Youth Equity and Safety (YES) Act” failed to advance. The Yes ACT would end the practice of charging children under 18 as adults. According to Natasha Dartigue, Maryland Public Defender, “Maryland is second to Alabama in the percentage of children automatically charged in adult court. Children charged as adults are more likely to suffer abuse and isolation instead of receiving rehabilitative care and resources to reduce recidivism.” Jenny Egan, who heads the Baltimore City Juvenile Division of the Office of the Public Defender, described the way that juveniles are currently charged as “racist and inhumane” because 85% of the children automatically charged as adults in our state are Black. When children are in adult correctional facilities, they are denied education and the types of services that could prepare them for a better future. According to Public Defender Dartigue, “[t]his only serves to exacerbate the circumstances that led to the child’s arrest in the first place.”
HB 1020, “Child Custody – Legal Decision Making and Parenting Time,” would have Codified case law regarding custody decisions so as to “take away the mystery of how and why a judge makes a particular decision” according to its sponsor, Del. Susan McComas. Advocates believe that by laying out all factors in the statute, this bill would make it easier for pro se litigants to understand how judges make custody determinations and what they are looking for from litigants. Further, it would change the language of “custody” and “visitation” to “legal decisionmaking” and “parenting time” in an effort to reduce conflict and to respect both the rights of parents and children. Advocates argued that the idea that parents have “custody” over a child reduces children to the status of property while “visitation” demeans the importance of the time parents spend with their child. This bill has been reintroduced on multiple occasions with little success.
Criminal Legal System
SB75/HB523, “Correctional Services – Pregnancy and Postpartum Support (Prevention of Forced Infant Separation Act)” did not advance for the second year in a row. This bill would allow infants to stay with their incarcerated mothers for the first year of their lives and have liberal visitation with their other parent. The first year of life is a crucial period of infant-parent attachment which when disrupted can lead to emotional distress and later behavioral and mental health struggles. Permitting babies to stay with their mothers has significant positive effects on their health and well-being. Allowing liberal visitation also permits the child to form this bond with both parents.
Child Welfare/Domestic Violence
If it had passed, HB324, “Child Abuse and Neglect – Domestic Violence,” would have made Maryland the first state in the country to protect survivors of violence from being charged with neglect simply because they were in the unfortunate position of being in an abusive relationship. The law would have created a rebuttable presumption that the definition of parental neglect does not include the following: a victim’s “failure to protect” a child from witnessing violence; not leaving an abusive relationship; not reporting violence; or not seeking an order of protection. Often, survivors of violence who have not taken these actions while in the midst of abusive relationships are later accused of neglect and are threatened with the removal of their children or actually have their children removed from their care. While certainly no one wants a child to be exposed to violence, experts express that removal from their non-offending parents can be worse than doing nothing at all. As I testified:
Children who are exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV) face unique harms if they are removed from their parents. This is because one of the most significant factors impacting how children process exposure to violence is their attachment to their non-offending parent. Further, when IPV is involved, it is critical that a child sees that their non-offending parent is protected and that the violence that they witnessed has come to an end. The child’s relationship with their protective parent is crucial to their development and resilience and the skills necessary to recover from exposure to violence. Secure attachment to the protective parent is the child’s most important protective resource in mitigating any trauma as a result of exposure to violence.
While this year’s session saw progress on several key issues, given these failures, collectively, we have a lot of work to do next year. If your organization is working on legislation for the 2024 legislative session that affects families, please reach out to us at CFCC to see how we might be able to support your efforts.