Cumberland Times-News

March 4, 2013

‘Good cause’

Conviction as sex offender should limit custody rights

Cumberland Times-News

— Many Marylanders likely do not know it, but a conviction for a sex crime is not a basis to deny custody or visitation rights to a parent.

That would change under a bill filed in Annapolis by several lawmakers who want stricter limits on custody and visitation rights.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings committee heard testimony last week on a bill filed by Sen. Richard Colburn, a Caroline County Republican, to prevent courts from awarding custody and visitation to a parent guilty of sexual abuse by a minor, unless there is a “good cause” to award custody.

According to Capital News Service, the committee was told of two cases where a parent convicted of sexually abusing a minor either won custody of their child, or could get it. In one case, a man found guilty of sexual abuse of a minor subsequently abused his own son.

Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, R-Talbolt, has cross-filed the legislation in the House of Delegates, “We need to make a higher standard for child custody,” Haddaway-Riccio said.

The Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault supported Colburn and Haddaway-Riccio’s bills in written testimony, but requested an amendment that would clearly define “good cause.”

On the other side, the Office of the Public Defender opposed the legislation, saying existing laws already protect children from abuse and neglect. “We believe the current law not only protects children from a broader range of harm (than the bill), but does so pursuant to laws and proceedings that embody appropriate standards and steps,” read the office’s written testimony.

Under current law, the guiding principal in custody decisions is the best interest of the child, Capital News Service reported. In making that determination, courts are required to consider evidence of abuse between parents or spouses, abuse of any other child living in the household. In the event of past abuse, the court must determine that there is no likelihood of a recurrence.

The U.S. Supreme Court and the Maryland Court of Appeals have recognized parents have a fundamental right to govern the care, custody and control of their children, unless the parent is found unfit, or under exceptional circumstances.

It seems to us that being convicted as a sex offender meets the court’s finding that custody be granted “unless the parent is found unfit.”

The General Assembly should ramp up protection of children who are at the center of custody cases involving a parent who is a sex offender.