Herald-Leader asks judge to force release of uncensored child-death records

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comDecember 15, 2011 

FRANKFORT — The Lexington Herald-Leader asked a judge Wednesday to order the state to turn over uncensored copies of documents regarding Kentucky children who have been killed or nearly killed because of abuse and neglect.

In a motion filed in Franklin Circuit Court, the Herald-Leader asked Judge Phillip Shepherd to make the Cabinet for Health and Family Services produce unaltered copies of more than 80 internal reviews conducted by state social workers after deaths or near-deaths of children.

The newspaper's motion came the same day The (Louisville) Courier-Journal filed a motion in Franklin Circuit Court asking that the cabinet be held in contempt for redacting information from the case files. A hearing in the case is set for next Wednesday.

On Monday, the cabinet provided 363 pages of internal reviews from 2009 and 2010 to begin complying with a previous order by Shepherd to release the reviews. The cabinet eventually must release about 180 full case files.

However, the internal reviews were heavily redacted or edited. The names of children who died were redacted from some files, as were all the names of children who were nearly killed and the names of those suspected of or charged with abuse. Other information such as the county in which the fatality or near-fatality occurred also was routinely deleted.

Kif Skidmore, an attorney for the Herald-Leader, said the newspaper thinks the redacted versions of the internal reviews do not comply with the spirit of Shepherd's Nov. 3 order.

"Judge Shepherd made it clear during the Nov. 30 hearing that the scope of allowable redactions would be very limited," Skidmore said.

The state's two largest newspapers have been involved in a two-year legal battle over whether documents relating to children who have died as a result of abuse and neglect are public record. Shepherd has ruled twice during that time that child protection records are private with one clear exemption — when a child dies or nearly dies.

"There is never any justifiable basis for redacting the names of child fatality victims," Skidmore wrote in the Herald-Leader's court filing Wednesday.

"The only way to serve the interest of such child victims is to allow the truth regarding the circumstances of their deaths to be known to the public and prevent similar deaths in the future," Skidmore wrote.

In court documents and hearings, the cabinet has expressed concerns about the privacy rights of other people in an abused child's family, including siblings. Cabinet officials also have said that releasing the names of children who nearly died could cause further emotional damage to the child.

The Kentucky chapter of the National Association of Social Workers said in a statement Wednesday that releasing the names of any abused or neglected children could lead to further victimization.

"The names of children is irrelevant; all we need to know is that their abuse either caused serious harm or death," the association said. "Our response should target what we already know — frontline workers in Kentucky carry caseloads well above the national recommended number, have low salaries and high turnover rates, and are not required to be degreed or licensed social workers."

Lawyers for the cabinet also have filed a motion asking Shepherd to allow heavy censoring of the 180 case files it still must turn over.

The newspapers contend the proposed redactions submitted by the cabinet are too broad and would allow the state to delete information that is available in other public documents and is clearly public under the state's Open Records Act.

"The cabinet proposed a broad category of redactions which would prevent disclosure of matters that are clearly not exempt under the Open Records Act, including the names of perpetrators who have been criminally charged in the deaths of abused or neglected children," Skidmore said.

In its motion, the Herald-Leader asked Shepherd to define the scope of what can be redacted in the 180 cases files.

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