In re M.B, 1331-2021

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtLEAHY, J.
PartiesIn Re: M.B
Decision Date09 June 2022
Docket Number1331-2021

In Re: M.B

No. 1331-2021

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

June 9, 2022


Circuit Court for Howard County Case No. C-13-JV-21-000080

Leahy, Shaw, Raker, Irma S. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

OPINION [*]

LEAHY, J.

1

On September 17, 2021, the Howard County Department of Social Services (the "Department"), appellee, removed M.B. from the home where he lived with his mother and two sisters on allegations of abuse and neglect. Several days later, on September 20, 2021, the Department filed a Child in Need of Assistance ("CINA") petition and request for shelter care authorization in the Circuit Court for Howard County, sitting as a juvenile court.[1] The court held a shelter care hearing, after which the presiding magistrate found that it would be contrary to M.B.'s welfare for him to return to his mother's care and recommended that shelter care be continued. The circuit court adopted the magistrate's findings and recommendations on September 21, 2021.

After the Department filed an amended CINA petition, a dispositional and adjudicatory CINA hearing was held before a magistrate on October 13, 2021. The magistrate, after hearing testimony from the social worker assigned to the case, sustained the facts in the Department's petition and adjudicated M.B. a CINA. The court then proceeded to the dispositional phase, where it recommended, among other things, that the Department take temporary limited guardianship. Neither Mother nor Father filed exceptions to the magistrate's report and recommendations. The circuit court ultimately adopted the magistrate's recommendations fourteen days after the report was issued.

2

Mother appeals the circuit court's order and presents three questions for our review:

"1. Was it improper for the [c]ourt to rely on hearsay statements the [c]ourt had indicated were not coming in for the truth as a basis for its finding at adjudication
2. Was it improper for the [c]ourt to consider at disposition the content of hearsay statements admitted at adjudication only to explain the effect on the listener and not for the truth of the matter
3. Should the court have applied the 'Missing Witness' rule when [M.B.] did not testify but did tell the court that he had been lying in his accusations?"

For the reasons explained herein, we conclude that in her first two arguments presented on appeal, Mother challenges the factual findings contained in the magistrate's report as clearly erroneous. Because Mother did not file exceptions to the magistrate's report and recommendations, as required by former Rule 11-111, [2] we hold that Mother's first two appellate questions are not preserved for our review and the magistrate's findings of fact are conclusively established. Still, considering the propriety of the judge's actions in adjudicating M.B. a CINA even excluding the evidence Mother asserts was improperly incorporated into the magistrate's findings of fact, we hold that the circuit court properly adopted the magistrate's recommendation. Finally, we hold that the magistrate did not err or abuse her discretion by declining to draw a "missing witness" inference in Mother's favor. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

3

BACKGROUND

The Allegations

On September 15, 2021, the Howard County Department of Social Services (the "Department") received allegations that M.B. had been physically abused and neglected by his mother. Ms. Blair Grooms, a licensed social worker with the Child Protective Services unit of the Department, interviewed M.B. at his school, where she noted that he had "multiple injuries including scratches and welts on his right leg, a scratch and bruise on his left leg, a welt on his left arm, and a sore shoulder, consistent with abuse." M.B. informed Ms. Grooms that his injuries were caused by Mother and explained that the two had "gotten into an altercation in the middle of the night due to [M.B.] leaving food in the oven[.]" M.B. also told Ms. Grooms that Mother kicked him out of the home "in the middle of the night" leaving him with "nowhere to go" after the altercation. After photographing M.B.'s injuries, Ms. Groom drove to mother's house to draft a safety plan. The safety plan, which was signed by Mother and verbally agreed to by Father, stated that M.B. had "sustained multiple injuries during an altercation with [Mother]." It required that both parents refrain from using "any physical discipline on [their children] (including hitting, pushing, punching, etc.)" and provided that Mother was to take M.B. to "the hospital/urgent care to have his shoulder evaluated."

Several days later, on September 17, 2021, the Department received new allegations that Father had physically assaulted M.B. After the allegations were received, Ms. Groom reinterviewed M.B. at his school, where she noticed that he had redness and bruising on

4

his chest. She also learned that Mother had failed to comply with the safety plan, as M.B. had not had his shoulder evaluated. Given the violations of the safety plan and new allegations of abuse, Ms. Grooms attempted to craft a safety plan that would allow M.B. to live with his maternal grandmother in Baltimore City; however, neither Mother nor Father agreed to the revised safety plan. Consequently, M.B. was taken into shelter care.

Shelter Care Proceedings and Order

The Department, on September 20, 2021, filed a Child in Need of Assistance Petition and Request for Shelter Authorization in the Circuit Court for Howard County, sitting as a juvenile court. The filing alleged that M.B.'s family "has an extensive CPS history, including multiple indicated abuse findings" and that M.B.'s Mother had previously faced "criminal child abuse charges in Baltimore City." The Department recounted the recent allegations of abuse and noted that Mother and Father had violated the safety plan. In addition to physical abuse, the Department noted that there "are also concerns of neglect" as M.B. was kicked out of his Mother's house in the middle of the night and that the parents had not had his shoulder evaluated by a medical professional. It averred that M.B.'s "continued placement in [Mother's] home is contrary" to his welfare and that there is "no parent, guardian, or custodian, or other person able to provide supervision." The Department posited that "removal from the home is reasonable under the circumstances to provide for the safety of the child[.]"

Later the same day, the circuit court held a shelter care hearing before a magistrate. While a transcript of the shelter care hearing is not a part of the record, the hearing sheet

5

indicates that Ms. Groom testified. In addition to Ms. Grooms' testimony, the Department proffered six photos of M.B.'s injuries taken by Ms. Grooms and a copy of the safety plan. The report of the magistrate "sustained the finding that continuation of [M.B.] in [his mother's] home is contrary to [M.B.'s] welfare and that it is not possible to return [M.B.] to the home and placement of [M.B.] is required to protect him from serious immediate danger." The day after the hearing, on September 21, 2021, the circuit court adopted the magistrate's findings and signed the proposed order.

Amended CINA Petition and CINA Adjudication and Disposition

On October 6, 2021, the Department filed an amended CINA petition, which was, in substance, the same as the original CINA petition. An adjudication hearing was held before a magistrate on October 13, 2021. In support of the CINA petition, the Department called Ms. Grooms, the social worker assigned to M.B.'s case. She explained that, generally, her role as a licensed social worker with the Department requires that she "investigate child abuse and neglect and assess the safety of children." Mother objected to the Department asking Ms. Grooms what her "understanding" of the abuse allegations against Mother were on September 15, 2021, when Ms. Grooms was assigned to the case, and the following colloquy took place:

THE COURT: What's the basis for the objection?
[MOTHER'S COUNSEL]: Hearsay if it's coming in for the truth of the matter.
[PETITIONER'S COUNSEL]: Your Honor, it asked about the allegations. It's not coming in as the truth of the matter. It's the allegations as she understood them according to [the] report to the Department.
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THE COURT: They are coming in on the effect on the listener and what it caused her to do next. Overruled.

Ms. Grooms subsequently testified that she was tasked with investigating allegations that Mother had hit M.B. "with a broom and metal object resulting in injuries."

Ms. Grooms testified that she began her investigation by searching M.B.'s family's history with the Department, which she noted, is typical of any Department investigation. Mother objected to the Department's questions concerning M.B.'s family history. The magistrate overruled the objection, reasoning that it was being offered to show what Ms. Grooms "looked at to do her job" and "[n]ot for the truth of the matter." Ms. Grooms explained that Mother and Father had "multiple child abuse and child neglect findings against" them and that Mother "had been arrested multiple times for child abuse charges."

After checking the family's history, Ms. Grooms testified that she interviewed M.B. at his school. Mother objected to the Department asking Ms. Grooms what M.B. told her during the interview:

[MOTHER'S COUNSEL]: Objection.
[PETITIONER'S COUNSEL]: Your Honor, we're offering this [as] an admission of a party.
[MOTHER'S COUNSEL]: Your Honor, this is not a party opponent and if it is - unless they're asking that he be designated as an opponent. And again, if it is coming in that way, it would only be admissible against the party and not my client.
* * *
[PETITIONER'S COUNSEL]: So, I'm going to ask that it be
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