Com., Cabinet for Health & Family Services ex rel. M.H. v. R.H., 199 S.W.3d 201 (Ky.App., 2006)

Com., Cabinet for Health & Family Services ex rel. M.H. v. R.H., 199 S.W.3d 201 (Ky.App., 2006)

Issue and Holding:
Whether the doctrine of issue preclusion applied to bar the Cabinet from introducing evidence of prior sexual abuse perpetrated against siblings of the infant by the parents at an adjudication hearing regarding the removal of the infant from the parents’ custody. The Court held that the doctrine did not apply.

Facts:
The Cabinet filed a juvenile dependency, neglect, and abuse petition on behalf of M.A.H., an infant, on January 5, 2005. The petition claimed that the infant was at risk of harm due to a history of “substantiated sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect as well as . . . domestic violence.” On March 4, 2005, the Cabinet filed a notice of intent to introduce evidence of the removal of the infant’s seven siblings from the parents’ custody at the adjudication hearing. In response, the parents claimed that the Cabinet was barred from doing so under the doctrine of res judicata. The family court agreed and prohibited the Cabinet from introducing evidence of sexual abuse of the infant’s siblings by the parents. The court then found that the Cabinet failed to meet its burden of proof and dismissed the petition. The Cabinet appealed.

Analysis:
The Cabinet argued on appeal that the family court erred by excluding evidence related to the removal of the infant’s siblings following a substantiated claim of sexual abuse perpetrated against at least one of them.
The Court noted that the Cabinet had a long history of involvement with the family and that the Cabinet had been granted permanent custody of the child’s siblings in February 2004. The Court found that the family’s long history of abuse and neglect was relevant to the instant adjudication proceedings.
The Court held that the elements of issue preclusion had not been established in the instant case. While the issue of sexual abuse of the child’s siblings was identified in the adjudication proceedings of both the siblings and the infant and the issue was litigated in the siblings’ adjudication proceeding, the issue was not actually decided in the siblings’ adjudication proceeding. During the first proceeding, the court declined to name the perpetrator of the sexual abuse because it believed that the identity of the offender was not essential to the proceeding. Therefore, the Court held that the Cabinet is not barred from introducing evidence that might identify the father as the perpetrator of the prior sexual abuse, noting that this evidence is “highly relevant” to determine whether the infant is an abused or neglected child.
The Court vacated the pretrial order barring the introduction of the disputed evidence and the order dismissing the original petition. The Court also remanded the case for an adjudicatory hearing.