Summit on child abuse deaths recommends more transparency from Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services

lblackford@herald-leader.comJanuary 15, 2012 

LOUISVILLE — Improved transparency and accountability at the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services would be the best way to lessen the number of children killed in abuse and neglect cases, according to a group of social workers, child advocates, judges and legislators who met Saturday.

The Summit to End Child Abuse Deaths, put on by Kentucky Youth Advocates, will send a letter to the General Assembly of their top four changes that legislators can make to improve child neglect, abuse and deaths. The other three are:

 Increase funds for proven and effective services such court appointed advocates, substance abuse programs, in-home services and parent advocate programs;

 Increase funds for additional Cabinet social workers and support.

 Improve the system of collaboration among agencies involved in the child welfare system.

Transparency and accountability became big issues after the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal sued the state to get access to case files of children who have died or nearly died as a result of neglect and abuse. Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled in both cases that child-protection records are public in such cases.

The state began releasing redacted documents in December about more than 80 children who were killed or nearly killed from neglect and abuse in 2009 and 2010.

A Herald-Leader review of the documents found a lack of consistency in how the Cabinet for Health and Family Services conducts internal reviews when a child is killed or nearly killed. Some reviews, which are required by law, were lengthy and thorough, while others contained a single sheet of paper that didn't even indicate whether the child died.

Budget problems have hurt child protection efforts. Cabinet Secretary Janie Miller said the Cabinet's budget had been cut by $80 million in the past four years. The KYA has estimated that child deaths and near deaths in Kentucky rose 39 percent between 2006 and 2009. At the same time, there are 125 fewer front-line social workers statewide.

Legislators at Saturday's meeting outlined the difficult relationship between the Cabinet and legislators, which makes it difficult to get good information.

"Instead of lies, we need leadership," said Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, who chairs the Senate Health and Education Committee. Denton last month asked for Miller's resignation.

Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, chairwoman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, is sponsoring legislation on death reviews, along with a pilot program to open court proceedings.

"We have a perfect storm. This is the only year I have seen that we can make a difference," Westrom said.

Miller attended the meeting briefly, praising the collaboration on the topic and the difficulty created by the Cabinet's losing $80 million in funding in the past four years.

The Cabinet has requested about $10.8 million in FY 13 and $9.9 million in increased General Funds for 300 additional positions in the Department for Community Based Services. Ninety-one of those positions would be for front-line child and adult protective services workers in Protection and Permanency.

The remaining funds would be used to fund the family support side of DCBS, which provides support for Medicaid eligibility, TANF, SNAP, LIHEAP and other programs that promote self-sufficiency and provide basic essential services for families and children in need. After her speech, Miller declined to comment on newspapers' lawsuits.

"What's discouraging to me is when the focus on this discussion is personalized instead of it being a real discussion of what actual practices we need to have to prevent child fatalities," Miller said.

Chris Bruggman, a social worker in Louisville, said Saturday's discussion could help Kentucky's poor outcomes when it comes to child fatalities.

"If Rick Pitino or John Calipari had these outcomes, they'd be fired," he said. "That's because we value sports, but we don't value families or keeping families together."

Patricia Estes, a Cabinet social worker in Paducah, said social workers across the state are terribly stressed with issues of trying to help children while keeping up with required paperwork.

As to the current debate over transparency, Estes said: "Secrets make us sick. I have nothing to hide. I would like nothing more than for the public to know what we do and how we do it. There needs to be a reckoning."

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