CABINET FOR HEALTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY; A.D.; K.D.; AND M.K., A CHILD APPELLEES
FROM MASON CIRCUIT COURT HON. STOCKTON B. WOOD, JUDGE ACTION
FOR APPELLANT: Kimberly C. Morton Maysville, Kentucky
FOR APPELLEE, COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY, CABINET FOR HEALTH
AND FAMILY SERVICES: Jacqueline S. Wright Maysville, Kentucky
FOR APPELLEE, A.D.: Laken Gilbert Maysville, Kentucky
FOR APPELLEE, K.D.: Debra S. Rigg Newport, Kentucky
BEFORE: J. LAMBERT, MAZE, AND THOMPSON, JUDGES.
appeals from the Mason Circuit Court's denial of his
petition for immediate entitlement to custody of his daughter
M.K. He argues that the trial court failed to conduct the
proper legal analysis before it denied his petition. We
affirm the circuit court.
morning of October 20, 2015, seven-year-old M.K.'s home
in Maysville, Kentucky was destroyed by fire. Although M.K.
managed to escape, the fire claimed the lives of her mother
and her brothers. Shortly thereafter, social workers with the
Commonwealth of Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family
Services (hereinafter "the Cabinet") secured an
emergency custody order granting temporary custody of M.K. to
the Cabinet and placing M.K. with her maternal grandmother
(hereinafter "grandmother"). M.K.'s father,
C.K. (hereinafter "Father"), lives in South
Carolina, and neither the Cabinet nor the child's
Kentucky family knew Father's contact information. At the
time of the fire, Father had not visited M.K. in more than
after securing the emergency custody order, the Cabinet filed
a petition alleging dependency in Mason District Court.
Father was present at the corresponding temporary removal
hearing on October 22, 2015, and he requested custody of M.K.
with the intention of eventually taking her back to South
Carolina. The district court nevertheless concluded that it
was in M.K.'s best interests that grandmother have
temporary custody, citing the fact that Father had not
visited in-person with M.K. in over two years. In addition,
the district court pointed out that M.K. had never been to
South Carolina. However, the court ordered a background check
on Father and a home evaluation for Father's home in
South Carolina. The district court also ordered daily,
face-to-face contact between Father and M.K. either in-person
in Mason County or via telephone or Skype. Father availed
himself fully of these visitation rights.
the temporary removal hearing, Father filed a petition for
immediate entitlement to custody pursuant to KRS 620.110. During a hearing on the petition,
the Mason Circuit Court heard extensive testimony from many
interested parties and counsel, including Father,
Father's wife, grandmother, Meagan Patton, M.K.'s
school guidance counselor, and M.K.'s guardian ad
litem (GAL). Grandmother testified that, prior to the
fire, she typically saw M.K. on a daily basis, because her
daughter frequently needed her help with child care. Meagan
Patton, a social worker with the Cabinet, testified that M.K.
had personal items at her grandmother's home and it was
obvious that she spent time there prior to the house fire.
She also testified M.K. was "probably the most
traumatized child I've ever interviewed in my five years
of doing this occupation, " and Ms. Patton asserted that
M.K. needed as many bonds to as many people as possible
following her horrific loss.
testimony, Father admitted he had not seen M.K. in person
since February or March of 2013, but he attributed this fact
to the cost of traveling to Kentucky. He also stated that he
had repeatedly attempted to call M.K. during that time, but
that the child's late mother would not answer his calls.
Finally, Father acknowledged on cross-examination that it
would not be in M.K.'s best interest to take her back to
South Carolina immediately, and he indicated that a period of
transition was appropriate. During the case, Father had taken
up temporary residence in Mason County where, presumably, he
would stay during this transition period.
circuit court denied Father's petition and issued
findings of fact, conclusions of law, and judgment on
December 9, 2015. The court made no finding as to
Father's fitness as a parent, but stressed that
grandmother was M.K.'s only close relative who could be
found when M.K.'s mother and siblings died. The circuit
court observed that grandmother and M.K. shared a close bond,
while Father had not been in his daughter's life for at
least two years. The court acknowledged that Father would
likely receive custody of M.K. in the future due to the
law's preference for parental custody. However, the court
concluded that removing M.K. from grandmother at that time
would inflict further trauma on the child. Based on these
findings and conclusions, the circuit court held that the
district court's award of custody was not clearly