The Maryland Court of Special Appeals issued an unreported opinion on June 28, 2021 in the case of In re. J.T. J.T. is a young child, born in 2016, and removed from her mother’s care a few days after birth. Her mother is a Maryland resident, and J.T. was born in Maryland. J.T.’s father was, and still remains, in Cameroon. J.T. became a Child in Need of Assistance and has been in out-of-home placements since her removal. The Maryland court terminated both parents’ rights. They both appealed. The court also closed J.T.’s CINA case, and her father appealed that. While both parents appealed and the court addresses several questions, this Blog Post will focus on the father’s appeal. J.T. has never met her father in Cameroon, and a clinical professional testified at a hearing that J.T. has no psychological attachment to her father.
When the trial court terminated the father’s parental rights, it did so stating that it was not able to determine his parental fitness because there was insufficient information. The court also noted his exceptional relationship with J.T., in that he has never met her, and only had video visitation. He is unable to actually travel to the United States, and he requested the court to send her to live in Cameroon, which the court found to be un-viable.
The father, on appeal, argued that since the Maryland court has no personal jurisdiction over him, they should not have the authority to terminate his parental rights, as that does not comport with notions of fair play and substantial justice. The UCCJEA is the sole authority for jurisdiction over a guardianship petition, and it specifically states that physical presence of or personal jurisdiction over a party or child is not necessary or sufficient to make a child-custody determination. The father concedes the court has jurisdiction, but argues it should be limited. He also argued that appearing for the procedures over WhatsApp did not provide an adequate substitute for being physically present in Maryland to demonstrate his parental fitness. He had a lawyer, and all individuals participated in the hearing remotely. The court further focused on the fact that the father made no meaningful attempt to connect with his daughter during the first year and a half of her life, and seemed to consistently advocate for the child’s placement with her mother first, and him as a backup, while failing to acknowledge the mother’s significant mental health challenges. Further, the mother had a second, younger, daughter, who was bonded to J.T., and would not be able to go to Cameroon if J.T. were sent. Finally, the father does not speak English, which is the only language that J.T. speaks. There was no abuse of discretion.