Kentucky attorney general: Agency improperly redacted records in child-abuse case

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comOctober 15, 2012 

FRANKFORT — Attorney General Jack Conway's office has ruled that the Cabinet for Health and Family Services improperly withheld information about a 2-year-old Prestonsburg boy who allegedly was killed by his aunt and uncle.

The Mountain Citizen in Inez had requested information on Watson Adkins, who was found unresponsive at his aunt and uncle's home in Prestonsburg on Sept. 29, 2011. Watson had been removed from his mother's home by state social workers earlier last year and placed with his aunt and uncle, Gladys and Jason Dickerson.

Gladys Dickerson was Watson's maternal aunt and had custody of him at the time of his death.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services initially did not provide two previous unsubstantiated reports of abuse against Gladys and Jason Dickerson to the newspaper, then supplied the reports with much of the information redacted, or blacked out, the attorney general's opinion said.

The opinion said the cabinet could not redact some of that information, including the names of alleged perpetrators in the unsubstantiated reports. The cabinet failed to follow the state's Open Records Act in its response to The Mountain Citizen by not citing state or federal law that allowed it to withhold or redact information, the opinion said

The attorney general's opinion, released Monday, is the latest step in a battle of more than three years between the media and the cabinet over what may be released after a child dies because of abuse or neglect. The Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal in Louisville have sued the state twice over the handling of social worker files on children who have been killed or severely injured as a result of abuse and neglect. The type of information that may be redacted from of those files is being appealed.

The cabinet did not say Monday whether it would appeal the attorney general's opinion to Franklin Circuit Court. It has 30 days to decide. Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman for the cabinet, said the cabinet released the records it thought it could release based on previous court decisions in the Herald-Leader and Courier-Journal cases against the cabinet. Only minimal information — such as Social Security numbers, the names of people who reported the abuse and Watson's minor siblings were removed from the files.

"The cabinet is surprised by the Mountain Citizen's decision to appeal to the attorney general since the records it requested were supplied in a timely manner with minimal redactions," Midkiff said.

Gary Ball, editor of The Mountain Citizen, said he was relieved that the attorney general's office agreed that too much information had been removed from the files. Ball filed the request for the information after hearing there had been previous reports to the cabinet about Gladys and Jason Dickerson's treatment of Watson and his siblings.

"I got heavily redacted information," said Ball. "I wanted all records from the time that they were removed from the home to the time of the criminal charges."

Watson Adkins and his four siblings were removed from his mother's home in February 2011 because of conditions in the home, records from the cabinet said. The mother was allowed supervised visitation with the children until September 2011, Ball said. The mother had taken photos of the children with suspicious injuries, Ball said.

Ball said the cabinet investigated two abuse allegations against Gladys and Jason Dickerson before September 2011. Ball received the reports from the cabinet, but it's difficult to tell why those reports were not substantiated.

"I want the records that will show me how they made that determination that those reports were unsubstantiated," Ball said.

Gladys and Jason Dickerson were charged with murder after Watson's death. Those charges are pending. Court records allege that Watson was beaten repeatedly in July, August and September.

A local day care center that Watson and his siblings attended was shut down by the Office of Inspector General with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services last October for failing to report alleged physical abuse of the children. Watson's 5-year-old sibling allegedly told staff at Dinosaur Playland Daycare in Prestonsburg that her uncle hurt her and pleaded with staff members to take her home with them. Staff also saw injuries to Watson's head on Sept. 26, three days before he died, according to WSAZ-TV.

Beth Musgrave: (502) 875-3793.Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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