Ky. Voices: State needs independent review of child-abuse cases

February 13, 2013 

Terry Brooks is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

A million years ago, when I was a high school student in Jefferson County, schools were overcrowded to the point where 200 to 300 students were clustered in an auditorium or cafeteria to watch instructional television as the means of teaching. Because of those outrageous student/teacher ratios, we frequently graded our own papers. Maybe it was just me, but a trend line emerged: My grades were a lot better when I graded my paper than when the teacher did.

That story illustrates one of several ways we can better protect children from dying from abuse or neglect.

With the number of children Kentucky has seen dying at the hands of abusers and the need for greater transparency about how the state intervenes in these situations, we all agree that we need an external review panel to see what we are doing right, where state interventions fall short, and how we can improve our system to prevent future deaths due to abuse or neglect.

In 2012, Gov. Steve Beshear issued an executive order creating such a panel.

The panel is housed within the executive branch and — despite the professionalism and ethics of panel members — let's be clear: We are asking the executive branch to grade its own paper.

I would rather have someone else assess how the administration is performing when it comes to protecting kids. In January 2012, more than 200 people gathered on a cold, snowy Saturday at the Kentucky Summit to End Child Abuse Deaths and agreed that they wanted an independent external review panel.

The key word there is independent. Independent means that it can look objectively at the administration's actions without any real or perceived bias toward protecting the administration.

That kind of independence of the external review panel is not about the Beshear administration per se, any more than it would have been about a Fletcher or Patton administration or will be about whomever becomes governor in the next election cycle.

It's the old "fox watching the henhouse" principle of oversight.

As the panel is put into law, there are a range of viable options where it could be housed from constitutional offices to the Legislative Research Commission. This is a hot potato, no doubt, for whatever entity takes it on. But our kids need someone to step up and make a commitment to lead a truly independent review process.

Does that kind of commitment carry some political risks? Yes. Does that kind of commitment require some minimal financial resources? Yes. But are we really going to let politics and dollars stand in the way of protecting children's very lives?

Beshear took an important step forward when he issued the executive order to establish the panel. Much of the implementation work fell to Attorney General Jack Conway, who met his responsibilities with good faith. Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Audrey Haynes has been thoughtful and open in discussions on improving the review process.

Rep. Tom Burch has now introduced House Bill 290 which reflects improvements over the executive order in terms of gathering more records for the panel to review but does not address the locus of the panel. Other legislators, like Sen. Julie Denton and Sen. Morgan McGarvey, seem poised to take the issue to the next level.

We need to seize the momentum that these state leaders have created and design a review process that meets national standards.

Some three dozen states have parallel review panels, and the track record suggests that perhaps a half dozen of those states are getting results for kids. For example, Michigan found a way to balance the gap between the need for transparency and the need for confidentiality.

That process protects certain individuals, such as the reporter of the abuse, and yet ensures the public and the press have access to the panel's deliberations, discourse and lessons learned.

I would guess that such a common-ground process does not make anyone totally happy but it does seem to be working in the interest of kids.

This is not about what the governor, the General Assembly, the cabinet, the press or advocates want. It is about what we must do to protect our kids from dying at the hands of abusers. Can there be any more critical call to action during the 2013 General Assembly?

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