FRANKFORT — State data shows the number of children who have died as a result of abuse or neglect dropped from the previous fiscal year.
The Cabinet for Health and Family Services released its annual child fatality and near-fatality report late Thursday, nearly three months after it was required to be sent to the legislature.
Eighteen children died as a result of abuse or neglect in fiscal year 2011 — which covers July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011. That's down from 33 deaths the previous year. There were 29 deaths due to abuse or neglect in 2009 and 31 in 2008.
The report shows that in those 18 fatalities, cabinet case workers had had prior contact with the family in 11 cases. Children under the age of four were more likely to be killed by a caregiver and little boys were more likely to be killed than toddler girls.
But a leading advocate for Kentucky children said this year's report does not go far enough and that the report falls short of the legislature's intent when it asked the cabinet to provide the report.
"First, the apparent drop in fatalities is, of course, good news," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a Louisville non-profit. "However, let us be clear that no one can celebrate as long as there is a single child who dies from abuse or neglect."
The cabinet has supplied the reports to the legislature since 2004. The reports are supposed to be to the legislature by Sept. 1. The 2011 and 2010 reports were delivered in December.
Past reports have included more information about the state's prior contact with the child and details about the child's death. The 18-page report sent to the legislature this week does not have the same level of detail and also uses different methodologies to compare statistical information, Brooks said.
"It clearly fails the letter of the law test given that it is three months late in meeting the legally mandated deadline," Brooks said. "More than just the compliance troubles me. Mandates such as this are — in large part — designed to give lawmakers and citizens the chance to look at long-term trends and then make policy decisions."
But the cabinet, in its report, said the statistical information included in past reports did not include enough data to show clear trends. In this year's report, the cabinet provided information over five fiscal years to show trends.
Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman for the cabinet, said in a statement that the cabinet felt that the report gave more context about child abuse and deaths related to child abuse.
"The department has submitted an objective and evaluative report of fatalities and near fatalities applied in the larger context of the agency's service provision and quality assurance mechanisms," Midkiff said.
In 2011, the department substantiated 9,595 of the 32,835 allegations it investigated. In fiscal year 2011, 69 of those cases were child fatalities or near fatalities — 18 deaths and 51 near fatalities. In 35 of those cases the cabinet had previous contact with the family.
In its report, the cabinet looked at five years of fatality data to show some trends in child-abuse deaths.
It showed that 49 percent of the physical abuse fatalities and near fatalities involved head trauma. In deaths involving neglect, about 28 percent of the cases were drug-related, including a child taking a caregiver's drugs or over-medication by a caregiver.
In the 11 fatality cases that involved previous contact with the cabinet, the cabinet did show some data including that in nine of the 11 cases, social workers were called because of allegations of neglect. However, the resulting deaths were due to physical abuse. All 11 of the cases involved children under 10, and six of the children were under the age of one.
But the cabinet emphasized that the sample size was too small to show a trend.
"Due to the sample size, no generalizations about trends in such cases can be drawn; however, the practice of conducting these analysis will continue and expand," cabinet authors wrote.
Information about child deaths as a result of abuse or neglect and previous cabinet involvement has been the center of a legal battle between the state's largest newspapers and the cabinet.
Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled on Nov. 3 that the newspapers were entitled to all case files involving children who have died as a result of abuse or neglect who had previous contact with the cabinet. The cabinet had fought the release of the documents until earlier this week when Gov. Steve Beshear announced that the case files would be released.
Shepherd had previously ordered the release of documents in other child fatalities, including in the case of Amy Dye, a 9-year-old Todd County girl who was beaten to death by her adoptive brother in February.
The case file showed that the cabinet never did an internal fatality review after Dye's death. An internal fatality review would look at the cabinet's previous involvement with the family and if there were missteps. The cabinet had received several reports of allegations of physical abuse concerning Amy Dye in the years prior to her death.
The cabinet said that it did not believe it was required to do an internal fatality review because Dye's death was caused by her adoptive brother, not by a custodial parent.
It's not clear whether Dye's death is included in the 18 children who died as a result of abuse or neglect.
Key lawmakers have said they want to hold a hearing in December on child fatalities as a result of abuse or neglect.
Brian Wilkerson, a spokesman for House Speaker Greg Stumbo, said that the hearing before the Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 19.
Stumbo, in a written statement, criticized the cabinet for failing to comply with the legislature's intent.
"Any time a government agency fails to meet a legal requirement, it's cause for concern," Stumbo said.
"I'm sure this issue will be looked at in the upcoming session if not before. If government agencies can't follow the law, why would we expect anyone else to? It's just that simple."