Trial Court’s interpretation of involuntary termination of parental rights statute was without error – Published Opinion from Ky. Court of Appeals

By: Spencer Pierson

L.G.A. v. W.R.O., et al. & L.G.A. v. J.W.G.L., et al. – Mason Circuit Court

http://opinions.kycourts.net/COA/2021-CA-000585.PDF

            The Mother of two children, K.A.M.R. and K.N.R., filed petitions to involuntarily terminate the parental rights of each respective child’s father. Neither father had been involved in their child’s life for many years. Mother named the Cabinet for Health and Family Services (“the Cabinet”) as a party to the action. The relevant statute, KRS 625.090 specifically requires that the court find by clear and convincing evidence that the Cabinet “has filed a petition with the court pursuant to KRS 620.180” when assessing a petition for the involuntary termination of parental rights. The Cabinet stated no objections to Mother’s request and confirmed it had no prior history with any of the parents. Father of K.AM.R. filed a responsive pleading requesting the dismissal of Mother’s petition (father of K.N.R. never participated in the proceeding). The trial court focused whether the court had jurisdiction “where a parent petitions to terminate the parental rights of another parent when the child was never placed with the Cabinet and when a DNA action was never opened.” Ultimately, the trial court dismissed the action, finding that an essential element of the statute was not met, as the Cabinet had never filed any petition whatsoever for the parents involved. Mother filed a timely appeal.

            Mother’s appeal was based on a claim that the disputed statute was unconstitutional, along with a claim that the trial court’s dismissal was based on an inaccurate interpretation of the statute. A failure on the part of the Mother to notify the Attorney General, therefore not complying with KRS 418.075, prevented the Court of Appeals from tackling the former issues; nonetheless, the Court was able to dissect the Mother’s latter claim, eventually concluding that the trial court made no error. Reviewing the trial court’s statutory application de novo, the Court found the statute’s text clear in stating the Cabinet’s petition was a necessary element for an involuntary termination of parental rights. While the Court noted the statute contained “admittedly confusing” portions, they found no legislative history to suggest that, as the Mother argued, the language in KRS 625.090 was adopted by mistake. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

            Alongside the holding, concurring and dissenting opinions were filed. Judge Cetrulo concurred, but in result only. While the plain language of the statute bound the Court to its ultimate finding, the fact the statute created a “scenario where a parent who cared for their child without Cabinet involvement is more restricted in protecting his/her child than a parent who has been subject to Cabinet involvement and support” was illogical enough to raise skepticism as to whether that was truly the General Assembly’s intention. Nevertheless, Judge Cetrulo noted that this appeal was not the appropriate venue to remedy such a conflict.  Judge Jones’, agreeing the trial court’s interpretation of the statute allowed absurd scenarios, dissented. Highlighting the legislative history of KRS 625.090, Judge Jones concluded the intention of the Cabinet petition prong of the statute was supposed to be read in conjunction with KRS 620.180, and should only be required in those cases where “children [have been] committed to the cabinet as dependent, neglected, or abused and placed in foster family homes[.]” Seeing as the child at issue fell under neither of the aforementioned categories, Judge Jones stated that remanding the matter was the proper holding, as the petition was wrongfully dismissed by the trial court.

 

 

 

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