Annapolis Roundup - Southern Maryland Headline News

Annapolis Roundup


Bill Would Strengthen Requirements for Children to Return to Birth Parents

A Frederick County infant’s death, which occurred after she left foster care to rejoin her birth parents, inspired state Delegates Kathryn Afzali, R-Frederick and Carroll, and Geraldine Valentino-Smith, D-Prince George’s, to sponsor a bill to better protect children.

Anayah Williams suffered a fractured skull and rib when she was 3 months old, but no one was charged for that injury, Afzali said at a House Judiciary committee meeting Thursday afternoon. Anayah was then moved into a loving, caring foster family, but under state laws — which make reunification the priority for Social Services — Anayah soon went back to her biological parents. Within two weeks, Anayah was dead and her father was charged with first-degree murder in connection with her death. She was not yet 2 years old.

“Somewhere the system failed Anayah,” said Frederick foster and adoptive parent Karen Kwasny. “The laws are supposed to protect the child, and in this case they did not.”

The law that governs waivers of reunification and keeps children from going back to their biological parents has weaknesses that allowed Anayah’s return to her biological parents, said Deborah Ramelmeier, acting executive director of Maryland’s social services administration. There was no proven chronic abuse in Anayah’s home, but the one case of life-threatening physical abuse should have stopped her reunification, she said.

Afzali and Valentino-Smith’s bill would require clear and convincing evidence the child would be unsafe, extending the law to include abandonment, severe physical or sexual abuse and life-threatening neglect to that child, a sibling or another child in the house.

The changes the bill will make are most relevant when it comes to severe, but rare, situations, Ramelmeier said.

“When we do see them, we feel we need to have the additional steps to ensure the child is safe,” Ramelmeier said.

A group of Frederick foster mothers, Anayah’s Advocates, came to testify in support of the bill, including Kwasny.

“Anayah’s life was cut too short, she did have a chance with her foster family, who adored, loved and cherished her,” said Kwasny, a foster parent since 2011. “Today is time for new legislation.”

She explained that as a foster mother, she supports reunification and has worked with birth parents, but, Kwasny said, sometimes reunification is not in the best interest of the child.

Supporters also testified for a companion bill sponsored by state Senator Michael Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll, in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Thursday afternoon.

--Grace Toohey

Bill Would Formalize Rights of Parents, Surrogates, Children

The Maryland Collaborative Reproduction Act would formally grant rights and obligations to parents and families who use a donor or surrogate to conceive a child.

Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, is sponsoring the bill for the third year in a row, she said.

“Without a statute that governs what should be in a surrogacy contract … some people were abusing the surrogacy process,” Dumais said. “There’s best practices, there are a lot of standards but it’s not under statute.”

The bill mandates necessary requirements for creating gestational agreements, or the contract between intended parents and a surrogate mother, including medical exams, psychological exams, and independent attorneys. It also grants the child full parent-child relationship rights with the intended parents, like an inheritance.

Much concern over “baby-buying,” rising prices for surrogates and the challenges of a terminated or abridged contract—like in the case of abortion or the surrogate choosing to keep the baby—came from the House Judiciary Committee members on Thursday afternoon.

State Delegate Marice Morales, D-Montgomery, brought up commercials she hears on FM radio station WIHT-99.5 during her commutes about ways to become a part of a surrogacy process, which she worries are attracting a younger, in-debt audience.

Dumais asked her about the specifics of these commercials, because, she said, she hadn’t heard these commercials and she also listens to 99.5. That sent Morales, Delegate Will Smith Jr., D-Montgomery, and Delegate William Folden, R-Frederick, into a fit of laughter, all of them in disbelief that she listens to the station, commonly referred to as “HOT 99.5.”

But Dumais stayed focused, and said that those commercials were aimed at egg and sperm donations, while her bill has strict requirements for a woman to become a surrogate—including being at least 21 years old and having already given birth to one live child.

Adoption and assistive reproduction lawyer Jennifer Fairfax said that because the option for surrogacy and collaborative reproduction is already legal in Maryland, the bill will help create standardized and regulated practices so less can go wrong.

The bill also received criticism from the Maryland Catholic Conference in years past, Dumais said, and she expects that this session, but is willing to make amendments to the legislation.

State Senator Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore, is sponsoring a companion bill in the Senate, which is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday. The District of Columbia passed similar legislation.

--Grace Toohey

‘Teen Tan Ban’: Providing Parents Support or Taking Away Choice?

High school teenagers might not be as tan as they desire for prom season 2014.

Sponsored by Senator Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, the “teen tan ban” would prevent minors under the age of 18 from using indoor tanning devices.

Current Maryland laws require parental consent for minors younger than 18 to use tanning services, in line with at least 17 other states. Howard County laws ban minors from tanning services, as do 11 states and the District of Columbia.

“It doesn’t matter whether people are talking about whether UVs are dangerous or tanning is dangerous. ... This is a bill about banning tanning for minors,” said Dr. Lawrence Green, a dermatologist from Rockville. “Indoor tanning is much more dangerous from the doctor’s standpoint than the outside sun.”

A 10 percent tax was imposed on tanning services nationwide under the federal Affordable Care Act.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently mandated a “black-box warning” be placed on every tanning bed, advising against minors’ use of the devices.

Opponents to the bill say it will put parental consent into the hands of the state and hurt the tanning businesses that rely on younger customers.

“This bill will ban parental consent,” said Jessica Cooper, state director of the National Federation for Independent Business. “This ban will be another blow to an industry that is already struggling.”

In other measures, the Senate Finance Committee heard two more bills: concerning the ban of bisphenol A plastic in receipts, and the period within which cemeteries in Maryland must submit a report on preneed trust accounts to the Office of Cemetery Oversight. The receipt bill was ill-received, while the cemetery report extension easily passed through the committee.

--Katelyn Newman

Bill Would Require Reporting of SWAT Team Deployments

State law enforcement agencies would be required to prepare written reports to justify most SWAT team deployments if a bill heard by a state senate committee Thursday passes.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, would also require more detailed reports on SWAT teams’ performance.

Supporters of Gladden’s bill noted that 59.7 percent of SWAT deployments in fiscal 2014 were for certain nonviolent crimes and 39.2 percent of deployments did not result in any arrests. They argued that often-destructive SWAT raids are being used too liberally.

Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo testified in support of the bill. In 2008, after a drug operation mailed marijuana to Calvo’s house, a SWAT team stormed the home and killed the family’s two dogs. The raid prompted a state SWAT reporting law that sunsetted last year.

“You, I think, have the obligation to set some standards and make sure that appropriate standards are in place,” Calvo told senators.

Police officials said that stricter requirements for SWAT deployment would prevent police from doing their jobs.

“The majority of our assignments are in support of the daily missions of our respective police departments,” said Lt. James Phillips, who commands Anne Arundel County’s Special Operations Section. “I would venture to say that (the bill) would probably have a paralyzing effect on our individual agencies and affect their ability and use of members of the SWAT team for daily mission accomplishment.”

Phillips said Maryland SWAT commanders have continued gathering data after the reporting law’s sunset.

SWAT teams were deployed 1,689 times in this state in fiscal 2014, according to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control & Prevention. Of these, 93.1 percent of deployments were activated in connection with executing search warrants, 70.6 percent involved forcible entry and 87.1 percent involved recovery or seizure of property or contraband.

--Nate Rabner

Gun Rights Advocates Rally in Annapolis

About 200 gun rights advocates, many wearing “Guns Save Lives” stickers, rallied on Lawyers’ Mall and met state lawmakers Tuesday, Feb. 10.

The 2A Tuesday rally, organized by the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, Maryland Shall Issue, the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore Inc. and the Maryland State Rifle & Pistol Association, included speeches by activists and legislators in favor of expanding the right to bear arms in Maryland. Among other priorities, advocates want the General Assembly to repeal the Maryland Firearm Safety Act of 2013, which banned many assault weapons and tightened eligibility restrictions for permits.

“We’re out here to introduce the new legislators to our community,” said Shannon Alford, an NRA-ILA state liaison.

Alford also called for a repeal of Maryland’s already-defunded ballistics imaging law, which requires gun retailers to send state police spent shell casings from each weapon sold.

--Nate Rabner

Bill Could Force Mentally Disabled Patients to Weigh Past Against Present

For seventy-two hours, mentally disabled patients may be forced to live in the past.

A bill presented to the State Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Tuesday would require patients in a state of mental distress to receive treatment according to their own predetermined requests, regardless of current wishes or demands.

Only after a three-day period would patients be reassessed by two doctors to determine whether they are again capable of making an informed decision, the bill proposes.

The decisions individuals make while in a stable state of mind should be honored without interference, said state Senator Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, the sponsor of the bill.

“This bill provides continuity of care,” she said.

But opponents argue that the bill is discriminatory, as the same considerations do not apply to patients with physical disorders.

“This bill is a drastic and unnecessary change to due process protections. Individual liberty is at stake,” said Brad Hersey, an assistant public defender at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. “It keeps people behind a curtain when the best thing for patients is to be seen and heard.”

The Mental Health Association of Maryland usually agrees with Kelley’s views, said director Kim Burton, but not in this case.

“Advance directives empower patients and facilitate communication between individuals and their families and health providers,” said Burton. “They are already a hard sell because of barriers, and this bill is one.”

--Deidre McPhillips

Legislators Move to Recoup Supplemental Schools Funding for Some Districts

The simple change of the word “may” to “shall” could bring about $68 million back to public K-12 schools.

A state formula that provides additional spending to some jurisdictions where the cost of education is more expensive stops short of stipulation in state law. It is currently a recommendation, but became an expected funding boost in recent years to 13 jurisdictions.

But some state legislators, led by state Senator Nancy King, D-Montgomery, and Delegate Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery, are planning to make funding of the formula a requirement.

The edit would effectively recoup the expected, additional funding, under the formula known as the geographic cost of education index, that Gov. Larry Hogan proposed to cut in half in his fiscal year 2016 budget.

The bill, signed by 15 state senators and 60 delegates on the corresponding version in the House, was presented at the state Senate Budget and Taxation Committee meeting Wednesday.

--Deidre McPhillips. Anjali Shastry contributed to this report.

Bill Would Create Taskforce to Study Free Community College for Some Baltimore City Students

On the heels of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, a bill presented to the state Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Wednesday would make community college free for more Baltimore City students.

The bill, sponsored by state Senator Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, would apply to graduates of Baltimore City public schools who are eligible for in-state tuition and attending Baltimore City community colleges full-time.

“This bill is so simple and so swift and it’s something that every county ought to consider,” said Gladden.

But Chris Falkenhagen, director of legislative affairs and government relations for the Baltimore City Community College, said on Wednesday that he was troubled by the details, especially because the proposal lacked a funding source, and Gladden amended the bill to create a task force on the topic.

“This bill begins the conversation,” said Bernard Sadusky, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. “The first issue is affordability and the second issue is workforce development.”

Garrett County has had a similar scholarship program in place since 2006 that is funded by the county.

--Deidre McPhillips. Anjali Shastry contributed to this report.

More Money for Counties, Local Jurisdictions from Drivers Possible

Counties and other local jurisdictions serve to benefit from the revenues from various car-related expenses if a bill presented by state Senator Roger Manno, D-Montgomery, to the state Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Wednesday receives a favorable report.

Money collected by the state from the motor vehicle fuel tax, the vehicle titling tax, vehicle registration fees and short-term vehicle rentals are held in a special account, in the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

Local jurisdictions, including counties, municipalities and Baltimore City, currently share 9.6 percent of the funds in the account, but this bill would increase that amount to 30 percent over a period of four years, closer to pre-recession rates.

Estimated funding under the new formula would increase shared revenues from about $95.2 million for fiscal year 2016 to about $375 million in fiscal year 2020.

Counties would get about 14 percent more of the fund, while Baltimore City and smaller local municipalities would get about 5 percent and 2 percent more, respectively.

The remainder of the fund goes to the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Manno said the legislation would return a critical funding source for smaller municipalities that have little flexibility in their budgets.

--Deidre McPhillips. Anjali Shastry contributed to this report.

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