Bridging the Gap in Parental Rights Education in Maryland’s Child Welfare System

CFCC Student Fellow Alfe Azad, UBalt Law Class of 2024

By Alfe Azad  

In Maryland and beyond, the wellbeing of children and the rights of parents and guardians are matters of significant concern. In response to federal funding requirement, each state crafts its own legislative approach to accessing and responding to allegations of child abuse and neglect. Ideally, these processes should have ample respect for the rights of parents and caregivers. However, state governments’ legitimate interest in child safety is frequently welded to disarm parents and caregivers and prevent them from asserting their constitutional rights to narrowly tailored government intrusions into their family life. 

When it comes to caregivers’ rights, it is impossible to overstate the importance of notifying and educating parents and caregivers of their rights at the initial stages of any government investigation. Some jurisdictions are requiring government actors to provide notice and education about parental/caregiver rights in delinquency or child abuse and neglect investigations.  Comparative analyses of several localities’ policies  reveal two types of provisions relating to informing parents and caregivers of their rights within the child welfare and juvenile justice systems: (1) provisions establishing substantive and procedural rights and (2) provisions requiring notice of the aforementioned rights. Maryland’s most recent caregiver’s right bill largely contains the same provisions in a law in Texas and in proposed legislation in New York. However, all three jurisdictions fail to include a provision that would enhance caregiver’s comprehension of their rights during a child abuse and neglect investigation:  an education strategy for parents and caretakers.

Maryland House Bill 644, Family Law – Caretaker Bill of Rights (HB644) proposed significant step to empower parents and caregivers to protect their children from being unnecessarily removed into foster care. Unfortunately, the Maryland House Judiciary Committee did not vote on HB644 during the 2024 legislative session and so the bill “died in committee” without making any additional progress in the legislative process.  HB644 would have required local law enforcement or social services personnel to provide parents and caregivers with oral and written notice of the following:

  • The right to refuse the investigator entry to their home without court orders,
  • The right to be informed of all the allegations being investigated,
  • The right to have an attorney consult them before speaking with an investigator and review any paperwork before they sign any agreements,
  • The right to refuse the investigator to examine or interview a child, unless ordered by the court or explicitly required by law,
  • The right to refuse any request made by the investigator (such as a submitting to a drug or alcohol test or a mental health evaluation), unless it is ordered by the court,
  • The right to refuse to sign any document (such as a release of information or serve agreement) that that investigator presents,
  • Any statement made by any parent, caretaker, child, or family or household member can be used against the parent,
  • The investigator is not an attorney and cannot provide legal advice, and 
  • If the parent exercises any of these rights, then the family may experience serious consequence, which may include the investigator filing a petition for the removal or the child from the home of the parent or caretaker.  

While HB644 was commendable for its focus on legal notification, it did not mandate a component that is fundamental to the full realization of these rights: education. 

Information aims to inform, inspire, and act as a reference. It can generally be created once and then sold many times with little marginal cost, so it’s usually cheap. Education, on the other hand, aims to empower and transform.” –Danny Iny

Similarly, New York’s Senate Bill S901 (2023-S901) emphasizes the importance of notifying parents of their rights, but fails to ensures that such rights are clearly understood. It mandates child protective services investigators to disclose information both orally and in writing, through a Parental Bill of Rights delivered in plain language. However, the proposal fails to initiate an educational program or process to ensure that parents and caregivers know how and when to use the information to protect their family integrity. 

Similarly, Texas has put forth HB 730, which enacts a robust system of informing parents of their rights in child protective services investigations  in a manner akin to criminal Miranda rights. Here, the process clearly focuses on the notice provision, as caseworkers are required to read rights to the parents and provide a written Notification of Rights, which is also detailed in the state’s updated Child Protective Service Handbook. The bill recognizes that understanding one’s rights is a critical component of justice, but does not ensures that parents also comprehend the implications of these rights in a way that allows them to exercise them.

The lack of an educational mandate in Maryland’s child welfare laws creates a significant void. Without a structured, mandatory educational approach, parents and caretakers may not fully grasp the scope and significance of the rights afforded to them. In the absence of such understanding, the very protections these laws are designed to provide can be underutilized or misapplied, potentially to the detriment of the families involved.

Maryland, New York, and Texas need to accept that the best protection of parental rights goes beyond mere notification. It requires a systematic approach to education that empowers parents with not just knowledge of their rights but also an understanding of how to exercise them effectively. This would enable parents and caretakers to engage with the child welfare system from a position of informed confidence. They would better understand the implications of their choices, understand the avenues available for their defense, and be more equipped to make decisions that reflect the best interests of their families. Maryland’s laws would be strengthened considerably by incorporating mandatory education about these rights into the existing framework.

The goal for Maryland’s Caregiver’s Right legislation is clear and straightforward: provide parents and caretakers with the knowledge and tools necessary to navigate the system effectively and protect their rights and interests. Next session, Maryland will have the opportunity to be a national leader by legislating concrete steps toward ensuring its parents are not only notified of their rights but also fully educated on what those rights mean in practice. This will not only strengthen the fabric of the child welfare system but also uphold the values of fairness and justice that are foundational to our legal system.

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