State promises quick action to replace social services commissioner

resignation of social services commissioner called 'a personal decision'

jbrammer@herald-leader.comDecember 7, 2011 

Patricia R. Wilson

FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear's administration expects to replace social services commissioner Patricia Wilson quickly after her abrupt resignation on Friday amid questions about the state's handling of child abuse cases.

Health and Family Services Secretary Janie Miller said in an email Tuesday that Wilson's resignation was "a personal decision."

"The appointment of her replacement is currently under consideration and an announcement is expected by Dec. 19, her last day," Miller said.

Miller did not respond to questions from the Lexington Herald-Leader about whether Wilson was given the choice of resignation or dismissal or if Wilson opposed the public release of child abuse records involving fatalities.

Wilson did not return phone calls seeking comment about her departure from the job that paid $111,348 a year.

Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled on Nov. 3 that the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal 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 early last week when Beshear announced that the case files would be released, although with some redactions.

Kay Hoffman, a University of Kentucky social worker and former dean of UK's College of Social Work, said Wilson is "one of the best persons I know" and that she was not surprised by her resignation.

"She believes in the integrity of confidentiality by the agency and I think that has been compromised," Hoffman said.

Hoffman said she and Wilson had not discussed specifics of her departure from the state agency, "but I think she resigned for reasons of principle."

Because of the move to release records about fatalities in child abuse cases, "innocent people will now be exposed," Hoffman said. "I'm all for transparency, but confidentiality is so important in these cases.

"This will change how social work is done. I think it would have been better for all involved if something could have been worked out on these records. I don't know why the governor did what he did."

Shepherd has already released documents in two 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 Dye in the years prior to her death.

The cabinet has said 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.

Also, the cabinet did not include Dye's death in the annual child fatality and near-fatality report it released last week, nearly three months after it was required to be sent to the legislature.

"Amy Dye's death was not included because only fatalities and near fatalities that are the result of abuse or neglect as defined by statute are counted for this report," said cabinet spokeswoman Gwenda Bond. "The statute defines the parameters for this report, and only the legislature can make the changes to those statutes."

The report said 18 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, 29 in fiscal year 2009 and 31 in fiscal year 2008.

Beshear appointed Wilson commissioner of the state Department for Community Based Services in January 2008. She asked Miller in a letter on Friday to accept her resignation, effective Dec. 19, but she did not offer any reason for it.

"Pat Wilson has been a stalwart advocate for our state's vulnerable children and families," Beshear said in a statement on Tuesday. "She has helped countless children lead safer, more stable lives."

Beshear noted that he recommended Wilson for the national 2011 Commissioner's Award from the National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect. Wilson will receive the award later this month, he said.

State Rep. Jimmie Lee, an Elizabethtown Democrat who is known for his work on social issues, described Wilson as "a consummate professional."

Lee said he was surprised that Wilson left her state job.

"I hope she wasn't let go just because she had a difference of opinion on an issue or two," he said.

Beshear's choice to replace Wilson will be "very important," Lee said.

"I'm concerned about the cabinet," he said, noting that Beshear must also appoint a Medicaid commissioner. (Neville Wise is acting state Medicaid commissioner.)

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, called Wilson's vacancy "a real test for the governor given whom he appoints and what qualities that person brings to the table."

The appointment, Brooks said, "is going to tell us how serious the governor is about transparency and accountability in fatalities caused by child abuse.

"This is one of the most important and symbolic appointments the governor has made since he took office," he said.

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