Kentucky had the highest rate of child deaths from abuse and neglect in the United States during 2007, according to a report released Wednesday by a national child advocacy group.
Every Child Matters Education Fund, a non-profit group in Washington, D.C., reported that 41 Kentucky children died from abuse and neglect in 2007 — a rate of 4.09 deaths per 100,000 Kentucky children.
To help stem the tide of deaths, the group called on state officials to make public specific information about each child's death, including whether he or she had previous contact with state social workers.
"If you want to stop children from dying, it would be in the best interest of Kentucky to open up the process," said Michael Petit, the group's president. "It's not a question of affixing blame; it's a question of learning."
Kentucky law permits the disclosure of details about children who die from abuse or neglect but does not appear to mandate release of the information.
Each year, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services produces an annual report of deaths and near deaths caused by child abuse and neglect, but it does not provide any specifics about each child's case.
"Our practice is to address confidentiality in the manner dictated by state statute and regulation," said Patricia R. Wilson, commissioner of the state Department for Community Based Services. "Opening such records is a complicated issue that would require careful thought and deliberation in order to protect innocent family members."
The Herald-Leader has filed an appeal in Franklin Circuit Court of the Cabinet's denial of a request for records in the May death of 22-month-old Kayden Branham, who died in Wayne County after drinking liquid drain cleaner that was allegedly being used to manufacture methamphetamine.
In addition to calling for changes in state law, the report challenges Congress to modify federal confidentiality laws. Such changes would allow policy-makers, the media and the public to understand better what policies need to be improved in the aftermath of a child's death, he said.
A photo of 10-year-old Michaela Watkins, the Clark County girl who received 77 injuries at the hands of her father and stepmother in 2007 before she died, represented Kentucky on the cover of the report, "We Can Do Better: Child Abuse and Neglect Deaths in America."
Michaela had been monitored by social workers after she was removed from her mother's home and sent to live with her father and stepmother, Patrick and Joy Watkins. The two were found guilty of murdering Michaela, who had been scalded and beaten.
Nationally, as many as 50 percent of the children who died had previously been brought to the attention of authorities. State data has shown similar results in Kentucky.
The report said 210 children died from abuse and neglect in Kentucky from 2001 to 2007.
"Reports such as this, though troubling, serve to heighten the importance of investing in strengthening families and protecting children from abuse and neglect," said Wilson, the Kentucky Cabinet official.
Despite the numbers, Petit said, children should be taken away from their families in only a small number of cases. Rather, he said, state and federal lawmakers should spend most available money on efforts to build stronger families, such as strengthening nutrition assistance, preventing teen pregnancy, increasing health care coverage for children and providing money for home nurses to visit first-time, low-income mothers.
Petit criticized the voting records of Kentucky's U.S. senators, Jim Bunning and Mitch McConnell, on legislation that he said could help prevent child deaths. According to the national child-advocacy group Vote Kids, Bunning did not vote for any of the legislation that the organization deemed as helpful to Kentucky's children. McCon nell voted for two bills.
Representatives of both senators said the criticism was unfounded.
"It's unfortunate that this report by a D.C. special interest group chose to ignore what Senator McConnell has actually done for the children of Kentucky," said McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer.
Steurer said McConnell supported a University of Louisville program to help detect and prevent child abuse, wrote legislation to increase funding for a program that provides health insurance for low-income children and advocates for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Bunning's spokesman, Mike Reynard, noted that Bunning has nine children, 35 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
"Senator Bunning is a family man who votes his values and doesn't pay attention to the views of an extremist organization that cares less about improving the lives of our nation's children and more about pushing the agenda of Democrats in Washington and the liberal elite of Hollywood," Reynard said in a statement.
The group says it is non-partisan.
The report shows that in 2004, the most recent data available, $89 was spent per capita in Kentucky on child welfare services, ranking it 16th among states.
Child advocates noted that the state's budget has faced repeated cuts since then.
"The most alarming aspect of this alarming report is the numbers come before the most recent series of budget cuts," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, the state's leading child-advocacy group.
Brooks said Cabinet officials have dealt well with mandated budget cuts, but programs that help save lives and money continue to shrink.
"Belt-tightening may be good for Frankfort political careers," he said. "It is a bad idea for Kentucky's kids."
Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at 1-800-950-6397 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3409.