Accountability by the courts

A decsion rendered by the Kentucky Court of Appeals on May 16, 2008 reveals that the appellate courts are prepared to hold the Cabinet for Health and Family Services accountable in termination of parental rights cases. There are very few published opinions in Kentucky reversing involuntary terminations initiated by the Cabinet. This, I believe, is because the trial court judges have tremendous discretion in their findings, there is no jury, and the statute (KRS 625.090) tilts in favor of the petitioner (usually the Cabinet) in important ways.

In this case, M.E.C. v. Com., 2007-CA-1904-ME, a toddler and an infant were removed from their mother when her car was shot at in a bad section of Bowling Green. The mother had been residing in a shelter with her two little children and had claimed to be going to the grocery. The children were left with someone at the shelter, but because she had previously tested positive for cocaine, the Cabinet assumed that she had gone to load up on illegal “groceries” on her little solo jaunt and that is why her car had been shot. Apparently, this set of circumstances was enough to convince a judge to remove the children.

After removal, mom had some other unfortunate events occur, including a car wreck that left her hospitalized for two months due to a brain injury. She also had a few stints in the pokey, but these jail stays were characterized as short in duration. Aside from these situations, she visited regularly with the children. Here the Court reminds us that incarceration alone is not grounds for termination of parental rights, but the Cabinet tried some creative reasoning to get around that holding.
The case sites other circumstances worth reading, such as mom’s attempts at treatment on her own and an incidence where the Cabinet did not provide coverage when the regular worker was on extended leave, but you will have to read the case itself for those tidbits.

The Court notes how serious a matter termination of parental rights is, though from my observations it is sometimes initiated just because certain statutory and federal funding bells get rung. In this case, the Court noted that: 1) the children had not actually been injured or shown to suffer ill effects from any alleged neglect, 2) no evidence that termination was in the children’s best interest was introduced, 3) the Cabinet never provided justification for changing their goal from reunification to adoption, 4) the Cabinet did not alter its case plan to address her changed circumstances when she was hospitalized, 5) the Cabinet did little to put reunification services in place, 6) the Cabinet portrayed mom as adopting a criminal lifestyle though they did not lay out exactly what the basis for that was, and 7) mom was doing everything she could to meet the case plan goals when they petitioned the court for termination. Regarding this last observation, it was noted by the Court that the Cabinet focused primarily on the past rather than on the progress she had made, like working full time and resolving the criminal charges. She had shown that substantial improvement in her parenting capacity was occurring.

Justice was served by the Court – sort of. It seems obvious from reading this case that the Cabinet screwed up, but I am certain it appeared obvious to the Cabinet that termination was the right thing. Too often I see workers with tunnel vision where evidence that contradicts their position is not considered and evidence that is weak or can be explained in other ways is highlighted as proof. This mom and these children should have never gone through this ordeal. When we get to that point, where children are kept with parents unless they are at imminent risk of serious harm or repeated harm as required in the statute (KRS 620.060), then justice will truly be served.

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