In this day and age when world travel and multinational citizenship is so common, courts are ever more frequently called upon to wrestle with which court has jurisdiction to resolve disputes over basic issues such as family law. The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) has been adopted in Maryland and most other states to address the problem of child custody jurisdiction, and directs that the court in a child’s “home state” has the power to handle initial custody decisions. Sometimes courts have to work through complex facts just to determine which state is home for a child, as illustrated by a recent case from Maryland’s intermediate appellate court called Garba v.Ndiaye.
The Court of Special Appeals’ opinion indicates that child “B”’s father is a native of Senegal, and the mother a native of Niger, though both are American citizens. They initially lived and worked in Montgomery County, and then traveled to Niger where they were married. The mother then got a job with the United Nations and accepted a posting in the African nation of Guinea-Bissau, and when her husband visited her, “B” was conceived. The mother returned to Maryland to have the child, where she owned a home and where her mother and some family lived.
Thereupon the child’s travel odyssey got very complicated. From the age of four months “B” lived with the mother in Guinea-Bissau and later in Ethiopia, making trips back to Maryland to see family. After the marriage deteriorated, the mother took the child back to Ethiopia after filing suit in Montgomery County for divorce and an award of custody. In her complaint, the mother verified that she have been living in Maryland for more than 12 months. The father filed a counter-claim for divorce, which went forward after the wife’s claim was dismissed. Eventually the Montgomery County Circuit Court had a preliminary hearing, while the wife was overseas, awarding temporary custody of “B” to the father. The wife’s mother then took the child and returned to Niger, and the father reported to the police that the child had illegally been taken from the country.
Eventually mother and “B” returned to Maryland, and the father took physical custody of the child who remains with him. At the final trial, the Court rejected the mother’s claim that the child’s home was really Ethiopia and not Maryland, ruled that Montgomery County was the child’s home under the UCCJEA and awarded permanent physical custody to the father. The appellate Court upheld the decision.
The Court based its finding on the fact that the mother, and therefore “B”, resided in Maryland since she owned a home in Montgomery County, paid taxes and had a bank account here, and her assignments with the U.N. were by their very nature temporary. The Court further relied on the mother’s having sued here in the first place, and agreed that the trial judge properly considered Maryland the child’s home state. This illustrates how the courts resolve such complicated international issues on matters like child custody.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.