Testimony describes differences in how states report, review child fatalities as result of abuse

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comFebruary 2, 2012 

FRANKFORT — The chairman of a key legislative committee said Thursday that he expects a vote in two weeks on a bill that could change the way child fatalities due to abuse or neglect are investigated and what information could be released about such deaths.

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, who heads the House Health and Welfare Committee, said he has been working with Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, and Republicans on a possible bill that would create an external panel to review child fatalities in cases of abuse and neglect and would address what types of information the Cabinet for Health and Family Services could release on child-abuse deaths.

In January, Westrom filed House Bill 200, which would create an external 11-member child-fatality review panel to examine child fatalities and near fatalities caused by abuse and neglect.

Transparency in Kentucky's child protection system has been at the center of a more than two-year legal battle between the media and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services over child protection records.

Also Thursday, Jack Sweetie, director of the Children and Families Program for the National Conference on State Legislatures, told the health and welfare committee that there are vast differences in how states report and review child fatalities caused by abuse and neglect. The NCSL is a national organization that advocates for states and also helps track and collect data on different state initiatives.

Sweetie said that although 35 states have internal reviews of child-abuse fatality cases, only six states require that its child protection or other agency develop a plan or follow up on the reviews, as the NCSL recommends.

In instances when follow-up has taken place, improvements to child welfare have resulted, Sweetie said. For example, Washington realized it needed to increase its training of law enforcement on child-death investigations. Texas improved training for social workers on infant-death investigations because of recommendations from child-fatality reviews, Sweetie said.

Although many states require reporting of information on child fatalities caused by abuse and neglect, the detail of that information varies.

In Kentucky, the cabinet is required to give the legislature a report by Sept. 1 of cases of child fatalities in which there was previous cabinet involvement. However, the most recent report contains no names and few details about the circumstances of those deaths and the cabinet's previous involvement.

Michigan does not release any identifying information in its reports on child fatalities. Washington releases names and goes into detail about the child protection agency's previous involvement in a child's life, Sweetie said.

Connecticut's internal review of child fatalities is not conducted by its child protection agency; rather, the internal review panel is part of the state's child ombudsmen agency, Sweetie said.

He said he knew of no state agency that allows the names of those who report possible abuse or neglect to be released to the public. The Kentucky cabinet, in a lawsuit with the Herald-Leader and the Courier-Journal, is requesting that the names of those who report abuse or neglect not be released.

Sweetie cautioned that it's easy to make bad laws in reaction to horrific child deaths, but the goal should be to improve the entire child-protection system.

Many states are looking at requiring their child-protection systems to report other outcomes — such as the number of times a child is moved in foster care — to get a better idea of how well the system works, Sweetie said.

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