June 01, 2011

Maryland Child Welfare Agency Had Statutory Power to Investigate Suspected Abuse of Nonresident Child

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

David N. v. St. Mary’s County Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 2011 WL 1204768 (Md. Ct. App.).

A Maryland child welfare agency had a statutory duty to investigate a report of suspected abuse of a four-year-old girl alleged to have occurred in Maryland, even though the girl was a Virginia resident. Maryland’s child abuse and neglect reporting and investigation statutes can be read to give child welfare and law enforcement agencies power to investigate reports of suspected abuse or neglect occurring in Maryland involving a nonresident child. This interpretation furthers the legislature’s goal of protecting all children from abuse and neglect.

A Maryland child welfare agency received a report alleging a 15-year-old boy sexually abused a four-year-old girl at a family picnic. The agency investigated and made a finding of indicated child sexual abuse. The boy appealed the finding and requested an administrative hearing.

At the administrative hearing, the boy admitted to sexually abusing the girl, but moved to dismiss the administrative charge on the ground that the agency lacked statutory authority to investigate the report and make a finding against him. He argued that Maryland statute only gives a local child welfare agency authority to investigate a child report involving a victim who is a Maryland resident. In this case, the four-year-old girl was a Virginia resident. Since the alleged abuse occurred in Maryland, but the victim lived in Virginia, he claimed the agency had no power to investigate the report and make a finding.

The agency opposed the motion to dismiss, claiming the boy had misinterpreted Maryland’s child abuse investigation statute. The administrative law judge granted the motion, however, ruling that the agency lacked statutory authority to investigate the report of suspected child abuse that allegedly occurred in Maryland when the victim lived in Virginia. The agency filed an appeal for judicial review.

The trial court held a hearing and reversed the administrative law judge’s decision and the boy appealed.

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland affirmed, holding that the agency was required to investigate. The court explained that Maryland’s child abuse investigation statute applies to two groups of children: (1) those suspected of being abused or neglected in Maryland, and (2) those who live in Maryland and are suspected of being abused or neglected anywhere. The child in this case fell within the first group since she was suspected of being abused in Maryland.

Maryland’s child abuse and neglect reporting statute requires designated professionals to report suspected child abuse to the local child protection or law enforcement agency and draws no distinction between child victims who live in or outside Maryland, or between suspected abuse that occurs in or outside Maryland. It requires professionals to make the report as long as the victim is a child, with no exceptions based on the victim’s state of residence or where the abuse or neglect is believed to have occurred.

If the suspected abuse occurs outside Maryland and the victim lives outside Maryland, the mandated reporter must then notify the local child protective or law enforcement agency. The agency receiving the report must then notify the appropriate agency outside Maryland for an investigation.

Maryland’s statute addressing child abuse investigations was amended in 2003 to direct a local child welfare or law enforcement agency to conduct an investigation when the suspected abuse or neglect involves “a child who lives in this State that is alleged to have occurred in this State.” The court found this amendment ambiguous and could be read to mean that a local child welfare agency can only investigate a report when the suspected abuse or neglect occurred in Maryland and involved a victim who lived in Maryland.

However, when reading the statutory amendment in the context of the greater statutory scheme of which it was a part, the court found it could also be read to mean the agency must investigate a report when the suspected abuse took place in Maryland or when the victim lives in Maryland.

The court concluded that only the second interpretation would fulfill the intent of the legislature that action be taken in response to all reports of alleged child abuse or neglect in Maryland. The court explained that the 2003 amendment to the investigation statute was intended to address situations where abuse or neglect happened outside Maryland but where there was still some connection to Maryland and the underlying purpose was to protect children in Maryland from future abuse and neglect.

Similarly, requiring investigations of reports involving a child who is not a Maryland resident but who was allegedly abused in Maryland advanced the protection of children in Maryland against abuse and neglect.