In re D. V. L.

Decision Date30 August 2019
Docket NumberNo. 3058,3058
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland


No. 3058


September Term, 2018
August 30, 2019

Circuit Court for Prince George's County
Case No.
CAE 18-28069


Wright, Graeff, Kehoe, JJ.

Opinion by Kehoe, J.

*This is an unreported opinion, and it may not be cited in any paper, brief, motion or other document filed in this Court or any other Maryland Court as either precedent within the rule of stare decisis or as persuasive authority. See Md. Rule 1-104.

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This appeal arises from a judgment of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County denying S. S. D. L. R.'s petition for appointment as guardian of his nephew, D.V.L.,1 as well as Mr. D. L. R.'s request that the court make factual findings as to D.V.L.'s eligibity for Special Immigrant Juvenile status. Mr. D. L. R. (hereafter "Uncle") has appealed and raises two issues for our review, which we have rephrased slightly:

1. Did the circuit court err by denying Uncle's petition for guardianship?

2. Did the circuit court err in denying Uncle's motion for findings of fact regarding D.V.L.'s eligibility for Special Immigrant Juvenile status?

For the reasons that follow, we will reverse the circuit court's judgment and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

A Brief Overview of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status

The Court of Appeals has recently provided a thorough overview of the current state of the law regarding Special Immigrant Juvenile ("SIJ") status cases:

Congress created SIJ status to provide humanitarian protection for abused, neglected, or abandoned child immigrants" who lack immigration status. SIJ status is an immigration classification that may allow for these vulnerable children to immediately apply for lawful permanent resident status.

The application process for SIJ status is set forth in the Federal Immigration and Nationality Act and involves two primary steps. First, the child, or, as here, someone acting on the child's behalf, must obtain a predicate order from a state juvenile court that includes certain factual findings regarding the child's eligibility for SIJ status. Without that order, a child cannot apply for

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SIJ classification. Second, the child, or any person acting on the child's behalf, must submit a petition, along with the predicate order and other supporting documents, to [the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS')] for review and approval. If USCIS approves the petition, the child is then eligible to apply for adjustment of status to a lawful permanent resident under 8 U.S.C. § 1255.9

Judge Zarnoch, writing for the Court of Special Appeals in Simbaina v. Bunay, 221 Md. App. 440 (2015), aptly noted that the process for attaining SIJ status is atypical in that "a State juvenile court is charged with addressing an issue relevant only to federal immigration law." 221 Md. App. at 449 (citation omitted). The State court's role is limited, however, to rendering findings about SIJ status eligibility; the findings do not confer any immigration benefits.

Federal regulations define "juvenile courts" as "courts having jurisdiction under State law to make judicial determinations about the custody and care of juveniles." 8 C.F.R. § 204.11(a). Maryland law designates circuit courts as having such jurisdiction and, consequently, authority to preside over SIJ status proceedings.

Romero v. Perez, 463 Md. 182, 187-90 (2019) (some citations, quotation marks, ellipses and footnotes omitted).


On August 28, 2019, Uncle, through counsel, filed a petition for guardianship of a minor seeking guardianship of his nephew, D.V.L. Concurrently, Uncle filed a motion for factual findings pursuant to Maryland Code (1984, 2012 Repl. Vol.) Family Law ("FL")

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§ 1-201(b)(10),2 requesting that the court make specific factual findings that would allow D.V.L. to apply for SIJ status with the federal government.

On November 30, 2018, a hearing was held on the petition and the motion. Only Uncle and D.V.L. testified. Their testimony, which was uncontroverted, is summarized below.

D.V.L. was born in February 2001 in Guatemala, where he lived with his parents for sixteen years. When he turned seven years old, D.V.L. began working on the family farm Monday through Friday from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Among his duties, D.V.L. applied pesticides and chemical fertilizers to crops without the benefit of a breathing mask, gloves, or other protection. Then, at the age of fourteen, D.V.L. left his job on the family farm and began working in a clothing manufacturing plant in order to pay for school. At the factory, he worked Monday through Friday from 6:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and on Saturday and Sunday from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

D.V.L. left Guatemala for the United States on or about July 20, 2017. According to D.V.L., he left because the Mara 18 gang had taken control of his neighborhood. He testified that the gang "controls the whole neighborhood . . . and [they] threaten us. If we

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don't join, they threaten us." He also testified that those who refused to join the gang could be kidnapped or murdered.

Fearing for his safety and wanting a better life, D.V.L. entered the United States on August 7, 2017. He was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE"). Eventually, ICE released D.V.L. to the care of Uncle, who resides in Prince George's County. Since his release from ICE custody, D.V.L. has lived with Uncle and his family, and currently attends high school. D.V.L. testified that it was in his best interest to remain in the United States in his uncle's care, and that he receives no support from his parents in Guatemala. D.V.L. is unmarried.

At the close of testimony, counsel for Uncle requested that the court appoint Uncle as D.V.L. 's guardian. Counsel argued that it is in D.V.L.'s best interest to remain in the United States and that Uncle has the resources and capacity to care for him. Then, counsel asked the court to make factual findings pursuant to FL § 1-201(b)(10), contending that D.V.L. was "neglected," as defined in FL§ 5-701(s),3 in Guatemala. Further, counsel

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maintained that D.V.L.'s duties on the family farm and in the clothing factory would constitute violations of Maryland Code (1991, 2016 Repl. Vol), Labor and Employment Article ("Lab. & Empl."), §§ 3-203 and 3-211(a)(1)(4).

Then, the circuit court issued its oral decision on the petition and the motion. Although sympathetic to D.V.L.'s situation and acknowledging that "circumstances in Guatemala are bad," the court denied the petition. The court found:

[T]he current immigration law doesn't permit him to come here legally and I, however, do not find that he's dependent on this court. He's three months short of 18. He—his parents provided for him. He lived with them until he chose, himself, to leave. Not because of any abuse, neglect, or abandonment by his parents but because he wanted to improve his prospects, which is admirable, but he is not in need of a guardian. His parents were providing care and oversight and they've consented to the uncle doing it without any court intervention. He wasn't abandoned by them. He wasn't neglected or abused by them. The reunification with them is viable and even acknowledging the application and the Court of Special Appeals decision [in In re Dany G.], I do not find that it amounts to neglect for a parent in foreign country to do the very best that they can for their children.

Based on those findings, the court found that guardianship was "neither required nor appropriate" given the circumstances. Finally, the court denied the motion for factual findings on the basis that "the predicate for that is when the court has assumed judicial authority over the child[,]" which it had already decided not to do. Uncle has filed this timely appeal.

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Standard of Review

Our standard of review is well-established:

When an action has been tried without a jury, the appellate court will review the case on both the law and evidence. It will not set aside the judgment of the trial court on the evidence unless clearly erroneous, and will give due regard to the opportunity of the trial court to judge the credibility of the witnesses.

Maryland Rule 8-131(c).

We review the trial court's legal conclusions de novo. Nesbit v. Gov't Emps. Ins. Co., 382 Md. 65, 72 (2004). Whether to grant a petition for guardianship is a matter for the trial court's discretion. This does not mean, however, that the court's discretion is untrammeled. "A trial court has no discretion to misapply equitable doctrines or to refuse to apply one when the facts and circumstances of the case clearly warrant its application." Noor v. Centreville Bank, 193 Md. App. 160, 175 (2010).


Uncle argues that the circuit court erred by denying the petition for guardianship and motion for findings of fact because sufficient evidence was presented showing that D.V.L. was neglected by his parents. Although the court acknowledged the appropriate standard from In re Dany G., 223 Md. App. 707 (2015), Uncle suggests that the court did not properly apply that standard in light of the uncontroverted evidence that D.V.L. presented. Specifically, Uncle points to evidence of D.V.L.'s full-time labor on the family farm at the age of seven, where he was exposed to dangerous pesticides and chemicals; his full-time

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employment at a clothing factory to pay for his education; and the growing threat from the Mara 18 gang in his parents' neighborhood. Further, Uncle suggests that D.V.L.'s work on the farm and in a clothing factory would Lab. & Empl. §§ 3-2034 and 3-209,5 had such employment occurred in Maryland.


The Court of Appeals has recently summarized the appropriate approach for Maryland courts in SIJ status cases in Romero (emphasis added):

The Court of Special Appeals has held, and we agree, that when a party requests SIJ status findings in his or her pleadings, the

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