Bullitt Circuit Court
On June 9, 2020, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services (the “Cabinet”) filed petitions for three siblings in the Bullitt County Family Court and opened a Dependency, Neglect, or Abuse (“DNA”) case. The same day, an order was entered, removing the children from the mother’s custody and placing them in emergency custody of the Cabinet. On June 11, an agreement was made between the mother and the Cabinet to place the children with their paternal aunt during this temporary custody period. An adjudication was scheduled for July 16.
On July 1, a Cabinet Social Service Clinician learned that the children’s father, a resident of Florida and, until that point, uninvolved in the DNA case, had taken the children from the aunt and brought them to his new residence in Florida. This was done without approval from the Bullitt County Department of Community Based Services. Five days later, the Cabinet informed the family court of this incident. Police officers in Florida were contacted by the Cabinet, and confirmed via a walkthrough of the father’s residence, that the family was “acting appropriately and responding to the children’s needs.” The children’s guardian ad litem (GAL) filed an emergency motion for the production of the children to the court. An order requiring such was entered, and the children were returned to Kentucky on July 8. Two days later, the GAL filed petitions for each child, alleging the Cabinet neglected or abused the children by not acting quickly enough on the knowledge of their removal from the Commonwealth. The petitions, however, did not seek removal of custody from the Cabinet. In response, the Cabinet filed a motion to dismiss, claiming governmental immunity. The family court denied the Cabinet’s motion. Likewise, the Court of Appeals allowed the petitions to be filed, though noting the “unusual” procedure of having new petitions against the Cabinet when the court still had jurisdiction over the matter via the initial petitions.
The Court granted the Cabinet discretionary review, but bypassed discussion of governmental immunity. Noting that the Court of Appeals acknowledged the oddity of the multiple DNA petitions, the Court went “a step further”, finding that the new DNA petitions against the Cabinet were “procedurally improper in the first instance.” First, the new petitions did not seek to remove custody from the Cabinet, meaning the GAL requested no relief which the courts could provide. Additionally, the Court found the filing two days after the children were returned to Kentucky rendered the petitions moot. The Court felt that the unnecessary petitions “diverted attention and resources from the central issue of the children’s care and safety”, and any concerns of the GAL should have been addressed in the existing DNA cases. Accordingly, the Court vacated the lower courts’ decisions and remanded for dismissal of the GAL’s DNA petitions.
K. Spencer Pierson