The Cabinet for Health and Family Services has long enjoyed a tremendous level of deference by most Kentucky judges. In my experience, both as a prior employee of the Cabinet and now as Court Appointed Counsel for parents and Guardian ad Litem for children, I have been concerned that the Cabinet’s reach lacks the ordinary checks and balances that limit other governmental agencies. One way this unfettered power has often played out has been for social service workers to insist that parents sign “Prevention Plans” or “Aftercare Plans” that the worker devises.
These plans, containing whatever restrictions and guidelines that worker sees fit to include, create a real catch 22 for parents: if they refuse to sign them, then the Cabinet threatens to file an abuse or neglect petition against the parent and if the parent does sign them, then the worker will file an abuse or neglect petition for any failure to adhere to the requirements of the plan. The threat of abuse and neglect action intimidates nearly every parent into signing, especially when the worker explains that their children may be removed from them. That is a pretty heavy hand to play to coerce the signing of a plan that the parent likely does not agree with but may be held to regardless.
However, in a recent as yet unpublished case from the Court of Appeals for Kentucky, K.H. v Cabinet, issued on December 22, 2011, the Cabinet has run into a limit on their power. In my opinion, this is a very important case and places an essential limit on the Cabinet to insure that parent’s rights are protected while not impairing protections for vulnerable children.
The language of the Court is worth quoting here:
The Cabinet’s position opens the door to a potentially wide-reaching intrusion by the state into the parent-child relationship. If the Cabinet can show that K.H. neglected her children merely by refusing to follow the Cabinet’s recommendations, then it could also seek to enforce other views about proper parenting in a similar manner. While the state has a compelling interest to protect its youngest citizens, state intervention into the family between parent and child must be done with utmost caution. It is a very serious matter. See M.E.C. v. Commonwealth, Cabinet for Health and Family Services, 254 S.W.3d 846, 851 (Ky. App. 2008), and V.S. v. Commonwealth, Cabinet for Family Services, 194 S.W.3d 331, 335 (Ky. App. 2006). See also Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 (1982). Although these cases urge such caution in the context of termination of parental rights, the parents’ fundamental interest in the care, custody and management of their children is not diminished by lesser state intrusions into the parent-child relationship. See Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65, 120 S.Ct. 2054, 2060, 147 L.Ed.2d 49 (2000).
We must also be mindful that an adjudication of neglect carries long-reaching consequences. This finding may be used against K.H. in subsequent proceedings, including proceedings to remove the children from the home or to terminate her parental rights. A finding of neglect may also carry a personal or social stigma far beyond the limited circumstances involved in this case. Thus, the courts should be very careful about making such a finding merely out of caution.
Furthermore, when the Cabinet seeks to compel a parent to comply with its directives, the courts must be vigilant to protect against over-reaching of that authority. It is not enough for the Cabinet to show that K.H. would be well-advised to agree to the terms of the Aftercare Plan. The applicable statutory definition requires a finding that K.H. created or allowed to be created a risk that an act of sexual abuse will be committed upon the children.
The Cabinet can no longer base a finding of abuse or neglect merely on refusal to sign a plan and parents should not cave to the threat of legal action for mere refusal to sign. Instead, “the risk of harm must be more than a mere theoretical possibility, but an actual and reasonable potential for harm.” Make no mistake: I want parents to be held accountable and for the Cabinet to be able to keep children safe from abuse and neglect, but they cannot have unchecked power and discretion in pursuing their mandates. Parents do have rights in this country.