Beshear: It's time to open more records, protect Ky.'s vulnerable children.

The time is now to open more records, protect vulnerable children

December 2, 2011 

Our children, especially our vulnerable children, deserve our protection. When our system fails to offer that protection — as it did in the case of Amy Dye's tragic death — we must review our strategies. This week I took four steps to improve Kentucky's system of child protective services, further opening it to review and scrutiny while being mindful of the complexity of social workers' jobs.

The first step: I directed the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to immediately begin opening records of cases in which abuse or neglect led to a child fatality or near-fatality.

Transparency will be the new rule, though we must — as other states do, redact information, such as the identities of victims and whistleblowers, medical records, Social Security numbers and information required to be kept confidential by specific statutes.

As the issue of transparency has been debated in court, we've been internally examining the laws and practices in Kentucky and the other 49 states, which run the gamut.

Many experts, including in Kentucky, adamantly believe that a system that stresses confidentiality of information is in the best interests of the child and will usually lead to better outcomes.

Their concerns are legitimate, but it's time, given the horrifying details of a few recent cases, for the balance to tip toward increased openness.

The second step: Kentucky is considered a "permissive" state, meaning that certain records may be revealed. Some 32 states, however, are "mandatory" states; the law directs that information must be released, usually spelling out more particularly what information can and cannot be made public. Kentucky needs to become a mandatory state.

I will be proposing legislation to begin a broad discussion of our laws governing treatment of records in such cases. We need a thorough airing of the arguments. The proper venue for that debate is the General Assembly.

The third step: I will again be proposing legislation to create an independent review panel to examine child fatalities and near-fatalities where abuse and/or neglect are alleged. This panel would be appointed by the state Attorney General and include professionals like doctors, social workers, pediatricians, forensic experts and law enforcement.

I have proposed similar legislation twice before, but those proposals did not survive the legislative process.

Findings and recommendations from this panel will increase accountability of all those who come in contact with abuse and neglect. More than any other step, this will improve our system of child protection.

And the fourth step: The Cabinet has already begun a comprehensive review of practices, procedures, policies and laws related to child protection to look for more ways to improve. Any recommendations requiring changes in the law will be submitted to the General Assembly in January.

I have two children and three grandchildren. The death of any child fills me with immeasurable loss. But you don't have to be a parent or grandparent to feel outrage, especially when that death involves circumstances such as those in Amy's tragic situation.

At the same time, what seems clear in hindsight in most of these cases is rarely so clear-cut up front. Amid our justifiable outrage, when we're looking to place blame, it's easy to forget the complexity of a social worker's job.

Social workers see families at their absolute worst, in circumstances complicated by an overwhelming array of social, psychological, economic, medical, criminal, geographic and physical factors. Rarely do those situations involve black-and-white decisions that are legally, morally and procedurally clear.

We are fortunate that, by and large, Kentucky's social workers are people of integrity and compassion who make good decisions based on available information and stretched resources.

How do I know? For one thing, our Cabinet earns accreditation from the national non-profit Council on Accreditation, a voluntary and arduous process that brings intense scrutiny. We're one of only seven state-administered public child welfare agencies in the entire country to achieve accreditation. Besides on-site reviews and interviews with judges and others, that process involves a review of more than 500 cases. That speaks to the professionalism of Kentucky's case workers and system.

But that doesn't mean we succeed in every situation, and it doesn't mean that we should not be continuously looking to improve.

Those who look beyond the headlines know that opening of records is not a magic formula that will instantly reduce deaths involving child abuse and neglect. That requires a continuous effort to make our system more effective and accountable, including all of the steps we took this week.

Steve Beshear is Kentucky's governor.

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