Kentucky voices

Ky. Voices: Senate must approve panel to review child-abuse deaths

It does need some privacy; can act independent of government

February 26, 2013 

Jill Seyfred is executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky.

The time is now for the Kentucky General Assembly to enact legislation which would statutorily establish the Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Panel.

The children of the commonwealth deserve a law which will mandate the review of child fatalities to ensure prevention of similar fatalities.

As established by executive order, there is currently a review panel in place, and it is tackling very challenging issues associated with child fatalities and near fatalities in Kentucky. Child advocates have been meeting for months to assist in the crafting of language for legislation which would expand upon and enhance the important work begun by the existing panel. Legislation has passed the House and now must be approved by the Senate.

Improving access to records and case information is a critical expansion which allows the panel to fully understand the role of all caretakers and family members involved in a child death or near death. It also supports a multiagency approach to review of child-abuse tragedies, identifying opportunities for systems improvement and prevention — not only within the Department for Community-Based Services but within any agency or service provider involved with the family.

This important point cannot be overstated. Approximately half of all children who die from abuse will not have been previously known to the state child-welfare system. We should be studying and learning from those deaths as well.

A review of national news coverage regarding child-abuse deaths and near deaths confirms one sad fact: Too many children die or are nearly killed by those entrusted to care for them. It is also painfully obvious we do not fully understand how to prevent these tragic occurrences. The creation of a review panel is an important step in answering that question. Similar panels have been established in many other states with encouraging results.

There has been much thought given to the administrative location of the panel, but we caution it is not the sole strategy to achieve the goal of independent review. The reality is this: The panel is comprised of noted experts in their fields. The vast majority of them are not government employees but are representatives from universities, advocacy organizations and community-service providers. Most panel members are appointed by the attorney general, and an at-large member is designated to serve as the panel chair.

To think this group of dedicated professionals, or any professionals who might be appointed to serve in the future, could be silenced by the administration ignores the professional and ethical obligations they uphold. It is certain that fiscal realities will strongly influence the final outcome of this issue. As has been demonstrated, the panel can operate effectively through the justice cabinet. Absent another appropriate entity being willing to assume the fiscal responsibility of administering the panel, the justice cabinet simply might be the best current option.

Press coverage of legislative efforts to establish a review panel has focused largely on the issue of secrecy and the media's desire to have complete access to case records. This position seems rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding. Any proposed legislation should not affect current statute or regulation regarding the release of records. The panel will simply have the authority to request and review records. The media or any other entity can continue to pursue access to the records through the official custodian of the record.

The argument that the deceased child has no expectation of privacy is also misunderstood; the panel will review records of children who were not killed. It is also critical to remember the panel will have access to records of all family members and caretakers. Most of these individuals are not identified as the perpetrators and might be grieving the loss of a child. They do, in fact, have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The death or near death of a child by abuse is a tragic occurrence, worthy of in-depth study and review. This review must be conducted in an independent and multidisciplinary atmosphere, allowing for the development of systems improvements and prevention strategies.

While opponents promote their own interests under the guise of the best interest of children and the right of the public to be informed, children continue to die.

It would be a shameful disgrace if another legislative session concludes without passage of a bill establishing a review panel in Kentucky.

Jill Seyfred is executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky.

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