Judge orders state to turn over all documents in toddler's death

Judge will decide what to release

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comDecember 8, 2010 

Kayden Branham Daniels, 20 months old, died after ingesting a drain cleaner allegedly used in cooking meth. He was about a year old in this photo.

FRANKFORT — A Franklin Circuit Court judge ordered the Cabinet for Health and Family Services on Tuesday to turn over all documents related to the cabinet's care of a 20-month-old and his teenage mother. The toddler died after drinking drain cleaner in a trailer where methamphetamine had been made earlier, according to a state file.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd told cabinet officials to have all documents relating to the death of Kayden Branham, who died May 30, 2009, and the cabinet's supervision of his mother, Alisha Branham, in his office by 10 a.m. Wednesday. Alisha was 14 when her son died.

Shepherd will decide what documents will be made public. The Herald-Leader and the Courier-Journal, which successfully sued the state to turn over the documents earlier this year, will be given a list of the documents.

Shepherd ruled in May the newspapers were entitled to the cabinet's records on Kayden and his mother. But on Monday the cabinet released only a 13-page report stemming from Kayden's death. The cabinet did not release any information about its previous contact with Alisha.

Some information in the report was whited out or redacted. That report and information from family members indicate the state should have considerably more in its files.

Alisha and Kayden had been in foster care before the boy's death but had been placed with Alisha's mother, Melissa Branham, family members said.

Alisha testified at a court hearing in January that she and Kayden, and the boy's father, Bryan Daniels, then 19, had started staying with her father, Larry Branham, at his trailer outside Monticello about a month before the toddler died.

A relative told the Herald-Leader that Alisha said she moved out of her mother's house because there was no water, electricity or food there.

Mark Stanziano, a Somerset attorney who represents Bryan Daniels, said there were indications of problems with the living situation of Alisha Branham and Kayden before Kayden's death, including allegations of drug use by people close to the child and Melissa Branham's failure to take drug tests.

Social workers were not aggressive enough in trying to protect the teen mother and toddler, he said.

"I think they could have had the child and his mom in a situation where they wouldn't have needed to be looking for a place to stay" that had running water and food, Stanziano said.

Kayden died after he drank drain cleaner, which is used in the making of methamphetamine.

According to information contained in the 13-page report, Alisha had taken Kayden away from the home while the methamphetamine was being made. She also told police she thoroughly cleaned the mobile home before Kayden returned. But someone left a mug of liquid drain cleaner in a bedroom. Kayden drank it and died within an hour of respiratory failure.

The newspapers filed motions to hold the cabinet in contempt for failing to comply with Shepherd's earlier orders. At an emergency hearing in Franklin Circuit Court on Tuesday, Shepherd did not rule on the motion for contempt, but he asked that the cabinet turn over all documents — not just documents relating to Kayden's death — to his office by Wednesday morning.

At Tuesday's hearing, lawyers for the newspapers argued that Shepherd's previous order was clear — the newspapers were entitled to information that both had requested under the state's Open Records Act. That information included all information about Alisha's previous contact with the cabinet.

"We don't have all the records that we were expecting," said Robert Houlihan Jr., a Lexington lawyer who represents the Herald-Leader.

Jon Fleischaker, a lawyer for the Courier-Journal, agreed.

"We have a final and binding order from this court to give us everything that we asked for," Fleischaker said.

But lawyers for the cabinet said they thought Shepherd's order applied only to records pertaining to Kayden's death, which the cabinet supplied to the newspapers. Moreover, the cabinet said in court documents filed Tuesday that it did not have legal custody of Alisha or Kayden at the time of Kayden's death.

Although there is an exemption in the state's Open Records Act that allows the cabinet to provide information about child fatalities, what that "information" is, is not defined in the statute, said Mona Womack, a lawyer for the cabinet. Womack said the cabinet did not think Shepherd's order allowed it to give the media access to all aspects of Alisha's life.

"There is a teenage mother in this commonwealth ... that is the subject of this litigation that is trying to live her life," Womack said. "We didn't understand the court to require the cabinet to give all of that information — which included her mental health history and any history about her family."

Shepherd said Tuesday he did not think the cabinet was willfully trying to circumvent his previous orders, but he said he thought information about how the cabinet handled Alisha's case should be released.

"As tragic as this situation is ... the statute provides for some public disclosure," Shepherd said. That disclosure will allow for broader discussions on whether the state's child protection system worked or didn't work, he said.

Cabinet officials agreed to have the documents — including unredacted versions of the 13-page report — to Shepherd so he can decide whether the information should have been withheld from the media. It's not clear when Shepherd will decide what information will be released.

Meanwhile, criminal cases are pending against several people involved in the case. Police initially charged Alisha Branham with murder and making meth.

She pleaded guilty in juvenile court to a reduced charge of second-degree manslaughter and is in state custody, she testified at an open court hearing in January.

Bryan Daniels, is charged with murder and making meth. However, his attorney, Stanziano, said that Daniels did not make meth and that there was no homicide involved in the toddler's death.

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