Z.T. v. M.T. et. al., --S.W.3d—(Ky. App. 2008); 2007-CA-001444-ME
Father appealed findings in a dependency, abuse, and neglect case, in which it was alleged that the father sexually abused his eldest child, M.T. Prior to August 2005, the maternal grandparents took M.T. to the hospital where she was examined for sexual abuse, which was not substantiated. In August 2005, the mother and the maternal grandparents took M.T. and her sibling, K.T., to the hospital to be examined for sexual abuse. M.T. admitted to the examiner that she had been abused by her father, the younger child denied any abuse, and no physical evidence was found that either child had been abused. A dependency, abuse, and neglect petition was filed in November 2005 and the court issued a temporary order prohibiting the father from having contact with any of his four children.
In January 2006, K.T. told an examiner at the hospital that she had been sexually abused and had witnessed her father sexually abusing her siblings. The father was then charged with four counts of sexual abuse in the first degree.
The first adjudication of the abuse petition was overturned due to the district court finding the children were abused based solely on the mother’s admission. At the second adjudication, held after the father was found not guilty of the criminal charges, the court found that M.T. had been sexually abused. The allegations concerning the remaining children were dismissed. The court then ordered that the four children be placed with the mother and that the father to have no contact. The father appealed.
The COA reversed and remanded based on the following errors: 1) The presence of the mother and maternal grandparents during the questioning of M.T. constituted reversible error, since the court made no finding pursuant to KRS 421.350 that their presence during M.T.’s testimony would benefit her welfare and well-being; 2) the trial court’s failure to conduct a hearing to determine whether there was a compelling need to interview the child in the absence of the father’s presence constituted reversible error; and 3) the trial court abused its discretion when it refused to permit the father to question the mother concerning her affair with a pastor who had been previously removed from a church because of allegations of sexual abuse.
The father raised other errors that the COA found unconvincing. Of note is the father’s allegation that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. While the COA ultimately rejected his claim, it set out the standard of review for such claims in dependency proceedings. “We hold that if counsel’s errors were so serious that it is apparent from the record that the parent was denied a fair and meaningful opportunity to be heard so that due process was denied, this Court will consider a claim that counsel was ineffective.” (p. 10). The Court warned that the burden is very high and advised that such claims are properly raised on direct appeal, not in a collateral proceeding.
Digested by Sarah Jost Nielsen, Diana L. Skaggs + Associates