Kentucky Court of Appeals vacates Lewis County Family Court finding of abuse or neglect due to insufficient evidence to support finding

C.L. v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, Cabinet for Health and Family Services; B.H., A Minor; and Commonwealth of Kentucky, Office of Lewis County Attorney, Case No. 2021-CA-1188-ME; C.L. v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, Cabinet for Health and Family Services; Commonwealth of Kentucky, Office of Lewis County Attorney; and L.L., A Minor, Case No. 2021-CA-1192-ME; C.L. v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, Cabinet for Health and Family Services; A.L., A Minor; and Commonwealth of Kenticky, Office of Lewis County Attorney, Case No. 2021-CA-1194-ME; C.L. v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, Cabinet for Health and Family Services; Commonwealth of Kentucky, Office of Lewis County Attorney; and K.L., A Minor, Case No. 2021-CA-1197-ME

The Lewis County Family Court found that a mother of four abused or neglected her children as a result of lack of parental care or risk of abuse or neglect.  The family court relied on Mother’s alleged false allegations regarding sexual abuse, consumption of alcohol, or alleged mental health issues in making its determination.

Mother reported to law enforcement that one of her children, namely K.L., was sexually abused by her ex-partner.  Following said report, Mother had several interactions with law enforcement, Cabinet for Health and Family Services professionals, and a children’s advocacy center, where individuals assigned to the case were concerned about Mother’s alcohol use and potential mental health issues. 

The Cabinet filed a dependency, neglect, and abuse (DNA) action alleging the children were abused or neglected and emergency custody was granted to the children’s maternal grandmother.  Numerous professionals testified at the subsequent adjudication hearing in the case regarding their interactions and concerns relating to Mother’s ability to care for the children; however, Mother moved to dismiss the Cabinet’s petition on the ground that the Cabinet did not meet its burden in showing the children were at risk or abuse or neglect.  Mother also moved the children be interviewed in camera.  Both motions were denied.

The Lewis County Family Court specifically found that “Mother makes false allegations as to sexual abuse of one child (3 times in 14 months) – Also, mother drinks + children are afraid when this happens with [Mother’s boyfriend].  Mother[’]s actions demonstrate mental health issues.  Risk of harm for children.”[1]  Further, the family court determined abuse or neglect was proven by a preponderance of the evidence supporting removal of the children from Mother’s care and supervision.  Mother filed a motion to reconsider/alter, amend, or vacate, which was denied.  Subsequently, at the dispositional hearing, the family court determined removal and continued placement with maternal grandmother was in the best interest of the children.  This appeal followed.

The Court of Appeals considered several issues: (1) whether Mother’s lack of parenting care was supported by the evidence presented; (2) whether risk of harm to the children remaining in Mother’s care was supported by the evidence presented (relying on the allegations of false reports, alcohol use, and mental health issues); and (3) whether the family court erred in refusing to interview the children in chambers.

The Court of Appeals found insufficient evidence to support the family court’s determination that Mother physically or emotionally abused the children, and that she failed to attend to physical needs.  Further, the Court of Appeals found insufficient evidence to support the family court’s reliance that Mother allegedly made false reports regarding sexual abuse of one of her children, that she consumed alcohol, and that she struggled with mental health issues, to the extent that said allegations caused her children to be at risk of abuse or neglect.  The Court noted “the risk of harm must be more than a mere theoretical possibility,’ it must be ‘an actual and reasonable potential for harm,’”[2]  determining the allegations were speculative and the family court inappropriately relied on same in concluding the children were at risk of abuse or neglect.

As to Mother’s request for an in camera interview of the children, the Court found that Mother did not adequately preserve her argument as she did not offer proof about the children’s anticipated testimony as required by Kentucky Rules of Evidence 103(a)(2).

Ultimately, the Court held that due to insufficient substantial evidence to support the family court’s findings of abuse or neglect, the family court’s adjudication and disposition orders were vacated and remanded for dismissal. 

Caitlin P. Kidd, Esq.


[1] See Lewis County Family Court’s Order dated July 15, 2021, following the adjudication hearing in this matter.

[2] M.C. v. Cabinet for Health and Family Services, 614 S.W.3d 915, 923 (Ky. 2021) (quoting K.H. v. Cabinet for Health and Family Services, 358 S.W.3d 29, 32 (Ky. App. 2011)).

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