Judge orders state to release child-death records with minimal redactions

Judge sets terms for redactions

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comDecember 1, 2011 

FRANKFORT — State officials have 10 days to produce 90 internal reviews of social workers' files on children who have been killed or nearly killed as a result of abuse and neglect, a judge ordered Wednesday.

Attorneys for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services told Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd on Wednesday that they were hiring temporary staff to redact more than 180 case files involving children who died or nearly died of abuse and neglect. Once redacted, those records will be made available, said Christina Heavrin, general counsel for the cabinet, which oversees child protection.

Shepherd's order came one day after Gov. Steve Beshear announced that he would release state records of children who have been in the custody or under the supervision of the cabinet and later died. The records provoked a lengthy legal battle between the cabinet and the state's two largest newspapers, the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Shepherd said the release of the documents will give the public and legislators more insight into the tremendous challenges that state social workers face.

"The purpose of making these records open is not to assess blame to individuals who work at the cabinet," Shepherd said. "Rank-and-file social workers are doing a tremendous job. It is the purpose of the Open Records Law to make sure that the public understands that as well."

The child-death records will help legislators who craft policy and the public know what the issues are and how they can help improve the system, Shepherd said.

Twice in the past two years, Shepherd has ordered the cabinet to turn over the records. State law says child-protection records are private with one exception: the fatality or near-fatality of a child, Shepherd has said.

On Nov. 3, Shepherd ruled that the Herald-Leader and Courier-Journal were entitled to the requested records. In addition to case files of children who have died in the past two years, the media sought internal reviews. The reviews, which would show the cabinet's involvement in a child's life and possible missteps, are required to be conducted after a death of a child.

After the Nov. 3 order, the cabinet declined to release the records. The newspapers filed a motion asking for a temporary injunction and a Dec. 2 deadline for releasing the documents. After Beshear's press conference Tuesday, the cabinet filed court documents saying it would turn over redacted versions of the documents.

The newspapers' attorneys objected, saying that Shepherd never said the cabinet could redact records.

In the court documents, cabinet attorneys had listed 18 categories of information, such as school records, that would be redacted.

In Wednesday's court hearing, Shepherd said only limited amounts of information, such as social security numbers, could be withheld. Information regarding a sibling or another child also could be omitted, Shepherd said.

Otherwise, little in the files needed to be redacted, he said.

Shepherd declined to issue an injunction and gave the cabinet time to hire staff. Shepherd also agreed to allow the newspapers to see the directive being given the temporary staff about what to redact. The newspapers would have an opportunity to object.

"I think the cabinet is acting in good faith," Shepherd said.

Although the cabinet has 10 days to release the reviews, which are investigative overviews of the cabinet's actions, no definite timetable for the release of the case files was set.

Shepherd warned that the cabinet should not take too long.

"They are entitled to these documents so the court does expect a prompt review and production of the documents," Shepherd said.

Heavrin, the cabinet's general counsel, said Wednesday that she expects the staff to be hired soon, and the case files would be released — probably in groups of 10 to 15 — when they were redacted.

It's not clear how much it will cost the cabinet to hire the additional staff.

Heavrin said cabinet representatives have not discussed whether the cabinet will appeal the Nov. 3 order to turn over the case files.

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