L.R. v. D.C.

Decision Date20 September 2018
Docket NumberNo. 2345,2345
PartiesL.R. v. D.C.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland


No. 2345


September Term, 2017
September 20, 2018

Circuit Court for Frederick County
Case No. 10-C-17-001404


Kehoe, Beachley, Fader, JJ.

Opinion by Beachley, 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. Md. Rule 1-104.

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On May 30, 2017, appellant L.R.1 filed a Complaint for Sole Legal and Physical Custody & Motion for Approval of Factual Findings to Permit Minor Children's Application for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status in the Circuit Court for Frederick County. L.R. sought: (1) sole legal and physical custody of his two minor children, his son J.P. and his daughter I.P (the "children"); and (2) factual findings necessary to enable the children to petition United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS") for Special Immigrant Juvenile ("SIJ") status.2 The circuit court held a hearing on L.R.'s complaint on December 21, 2017, and took the matter under advisement.

In an order entered January 4, 2018, the court denied both L.R.'s complaint for custody and also his request for SIJ status factual findings. L.R. timely appealed, and presents three questions for our review which we have consolidated as follows:

1. Did the circuit court err in denying L.R.'s claim for custody?

2. Did the circuit court err in rejecting L.R.'s motion for [SIJ status] findings, and, if so, should the circuit court have entered a predicate order?

We hold that the court erred, vacate the judgment, and remand for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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As stated above, on May 30, 2017, L.R. filed a complaint seeking sole legal and physical custody of his children, as well as for the court to make factual findings for purposes of SIJ status. The Circuit Court for Frederick County held a hearing for this matter on December 21, 2017.

At the hearing, L.R. explained his family's background. He testified that his two children, J.P. and I.P., were born in El Salvador. J.P. was born in January 2000, and I.P. was born in April 2004. Neither child had ever been married. L.R. explained that he never married D.C.,3 the children's biological mother. At first, L.R., D.C., the couple's two children, and L.R.'s parents all lived at L.R.'s parents' house in El Salvador. In 2006, however, L.R. moved to the United States, hoping to give his children a better life. While working in the United States, L.R. provided financial support for the family by sending money to El Salvador, and spoke with his children every weekend. D.C., however, did not provide any financial support. In 2008, D.C. moved out of L.R.'s parents' home and stopped participating in the children's lives.

At the time of the December 21, 2017 hearing, L.R. testified that the children had been living with him in Frederick for approximately one year.4 He stated that he supported

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them economically, provided an apartment, and enrolled them in school. At the conclusion of L.R.'s testimony, the court questioned L.R. about J.P.'s course load at school, but L.R. could only recall two of J.P.'s seven different courses: English and Mathematics. L.R. did not know his son's grades, and he had not spoken with J.P.'s teachers. When asked what J.P.'s hobbies were, L.R. told the court that J.P. was interested in music.

J.P. testified next, and mostly corroborated his father's testimony. J.P. told the court that he had been living with his father and sister in Frederick for a year. He stated that he had no relationship with his mother, and could not remember the last time he had seen her. J.P. told the court that when he lived in El Salvador with his father's parents, his father paid for his food, clothes, and necessities.

J.P. explained that he left El Salvador because MS-13, a violent gang, told him that that they would kill I.P. if he refused to join them. MS-13 also beat up one of J.P.'s friends, and shot a boy J.P. knew because they had confused him with someone else. J.P. stated that he and his father had a "very good" relationship, and that he wished to continue living with his father in the United States. J.P. told the court that, in his free time, he enjoyed listening to music and learning English, and that he wants to be an electrical engineer when he grows up. Lastly, J.P. testified that he did not want to return to El Salvador because he felt it was dangerous, and that he would not be able to pursue his studies there.

Finally, I.P. testified. Like her brother, she mostly corroborated her father's testimony. I.P. explained that she did not have any relationship with her mother, and that she did not remember ever seeing her. She told the court that after her father went to the

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United States, he would call them every fifteen days, and that he paid for her food, clothing, schooling, and other needs while she lived with her father's parents. I.P. indicated that she liked living with her father, that they had a "very good" relationship, that she wished to continue living with her father, and that she did not want to return to El Salvador. She further testified that she enjoyed listening to music and wanted to be a veterinarian.

The court then asked I.P. about her grades. I.P. admitted that she was struggling in school, with grades of D's and F's. When the court asked whether L.R. spoke to her teachers, I.P. answered in the affirmative. The court noted this discrepancy between L.R.'s and I.P.'s testimony. As stated above, at the conclusion of the hearing, the court took the matter under advisement.

In its Findings and Order, the court found that L.R. failed to prove that he should be awarded sole legal and physical custody, and that he failed to meet his burden for the court to make findings for SIJ status. Regarding custody, the court found that "many, if not all witnesses, had identical responses to several of the questions posed by counsel." Relying on this observation, the court found that "the testimony lacked authenticity, and so [it gave] that testimony very little weight." The court stated that it had reviewed all of the factors articulated in Montgomery Cty. Dep't of Soc. Servs. v. Sanders, 38 Md. App. 406 (1977), and found that L.R. lacked the ability to meet the children's day-to-day educational needs. The court noted that the children were struggling in school, that L.R. did not know which classes they took, and that L.R. had not communicated with any of their teachers. The court also found that L.R. was not fit to socialize his children because "the responses the

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minor children gave regarding their free-time activities were not typical of children their age." Because the court was concerned with L.R.'s ability to meet the children's needs regarding education and socialization, it declined to award L.R. sole physical and legal custody. Relying on "the above-mentioned credibility issue regarding the testimony of the witnesses" the court also denied L.R.'s request for SIJ status findings. L.R. timely filed this appeal.



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