Bill on oversight of child abuse cases clears a hurdle

jcheves@herald-leader.comMarch 27, 2012 

State Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington

FRANKFORT — A Senate committee on Tuesday killed a measure that would establish outside oversight of Kentucky's troubled child-protective system, but a House committee revived it minutes later through a procedural maneuver.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee loaded down House Bill 200 with many amendments, including several pieces of legislation favored by Chairwoman Julie Denton, R-Louisville, that were stalled in the House. The bill then failed for lack of support in the committee.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, immediately walked down the hall of the Capitol Annex to a hearing room where the House State Government Committee unanimously approved Denton's Senate Bill 126, a routine measure on social workers. Attached to Denton's bill, as an amendment, was Westrom's oversight bill.

If the full House approves Denton's bill as amended, the Senate must concur with the change for it to be sent to Gov. Steve Beshear for his signature.

Westrom's measure would create an independent office to investigate the performance of the child-protection division of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services and an external review panel to investigate deaths and near-deaths of abused or neglected children.

The Kentucky Press Association opposes the measure because it would exempt the investigations and records they collect from the state Open Records Act, which the state's newspapers have used to report on problems with the child-protective system.

The Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville successfully have sued the cabinet to get records of children who had previous contact with the cabinet and were later killed or severely injured as a result of abuse and neglect. The cabinet is appealing the decision.

Westrom's measure will create a new exemption in the Open Records Act that the cabinet can use to withhold more documents from the public in order to protect its image, said Jon Fleischaker, attorney for the Kentucky Press Association.

The cabinet already has refused to release records identifying the counties where children were hurt, the hospitals where they were treated and even the names of people convicted of killing them, citing "privacy concerns," Fleischaker said.

The KPA does support the bill's call for an outside review of child-protective cases, Fleischaker said.

"But what this bill does is add another layer of secrecy on top of the secrecy we already have at the cabinet," Fleischaker said. "To call this bill a transparency bill, when in fact it adds to the darkness, is simply a misnomer."

Westrom said the cabinet's attorneys wrote the section of her bill regarding the Open Records Act, and she acknowledged "that does limit the transparency." The legislature can return to the subject next year and make changes if necessary, she said.

However, Westrom said, the most important thing is for the legislature to add more scrutiny to the cabinet's relationship with abused and neglected children who are referred to it by teachers, doctors, concerned relatives and others. Authorities have warned the state for years that it needs to improve its protection of children, she said.

Westrom's measure would create a panel of experts from outside the cabinet to examine how the state handled cases in which abused children died or were severely injured. The panel's meetings would be secret, and its work would not be public. The panel would have to report general findings, which could not identify the victims, on a Web site and to the legislature.

The measure also would create an independent office to investigate problems in child-protection, with an executive director and a small staff, Westrom said. She estimated the full cost of the measure at $2 million a year, though there's no indication that funding will be added to the state budget during negotiations between the House and Senate this week, she said.

"If we have to start smaller, with just an executive director, say, then we will," Westrom said after the House committee vote. "If we don't get the money right now, I'm not going to roll over and play dead."

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