R.V. v. Commonwealth of KY, ___S.W.3d___, (Ct.App. 2007)
Mother and Father’s parental rights were terminated following a dependency, neglect and abuse action. When the action was initiated in district court, the parents were each appointed counsel. The adjudication and disposition hearings were held together and the court found the child had been neglected. A family case plan was developed and the permanency goal was to return the child to the parents. The parents were ordered to cooperate with the Cabinet and complete all programs and counseling required by the Cabinet. Eventually, the parents’ appointed attorneys were relieved of their duties. Following this, a permanency review was conducted and the goal was changed from return to parent to adoption. At this hearing, the parents were not represented by counsel. Hence, the Cabinet filed a petition for involuntary termination.
Before hearing the termination action, the circuit court appointed separate counsel for the parents. The circuit court then terminated both parents’ parental rights. In its opinion, the circuit court commented that the lack of counsel at the district court hearing changing the goal to adoption was probably a violation of due process. However, the court found this error was not fatal and terminated parental rights. The CA reversed and held it was a violation of due process to change the goal without providing counsel to the parents. The court opined that parents are entitled to “a meaningful opportunity to be heard, including the right to consult with counsel, at goal change and permanency hearings.” Therefore, parental rights may not be terminated unless parents are represented by counsel at every critical stage of the proceeding.
Digest by Linda Dixon Bullock, Diana L. Skaggs + Associates