Toddler's death revealed 'egregious' failures by state child-protection system

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comMarch 11, 2013 

FRANKFORT — An independent panel reviewing the deaths of abused or neglected children heard Monday about the "egregious" failures of Kentucky's child-protection system in the case of 3-year-old Alayna Adair of Christian County.

"If we had intervened according to the policies and practices of this department, I believe that we may have had an opportunity to ensure the safety of this child," state Community Based Services Commissioner Teresa James said after the meeting.

Gov. Steve Beshear appointed the 17-member panel, led by retired Franklin Circuit Judge Roger Crittenden, in July to review deaths and critical injuries from child abuse or neglect and make recommendations on how to improve Kentucky's child-protection system.

James told the panel there were "egregious" policy failures leading up to the July 2, 2011, death of Alayna.

"This is an unfortunate case ... that I don't believe is indicative of the work we do across the state," James said after the meeting.

She did not name the child or her child-protection worker at Monday's meeting, but a spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services confirmed after the meeting that James was talking about Alayna.

Christian County Commonwealth's Attorney Lynn Pryor said Monday that child-protection worker Donna Currey, who resigned in October 2011, was indicted for tampering with public records in Alayna's case.

"There were some allegations of abuse. She included some things in her records that were not true," Pryor said.

Alayna died from brain trauma, and her father, Charles Timothy Morris, was charged with murder. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go to trial in September. Currey, who pleaded not guilty, has a May trial date.

After Alayna's death, the state took "aggressive and immediate" personnel action, James said Monday. She did not elaborate.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reported in November 2011 that Currey was assigned to investigate suspicious injuries involving Alayna three weeks before her death. An internal investigation found that Currey never saw Alayna and lied about investigating the previous complaint, the newspaper reported.

James said her department made changes on a regional and statewide basis as a result of Alayna's death in an attempt to prevent similar errors from happening again.

The review panel has seen only heavily redacted files provided by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees child-abuse cases. Beshear appointed the independent panel last year after the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal successfully sued the state to open records of children who have been killed or nearly killed as a result of abuse or neglect.

The newspapers and the state are engaged in a legal battle over what information may be removed from those case files. That lawsuit is pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Panelists have said they need complete access to case files of social workers, which they would look at behind closed doors.

Toward that effort, the Senate has passed House Bill 290, which would let the panel see uncensored case files and allow it to ask for information from other agencies. The legislation would make Beshear's review panel permanent and extend its membership to 20 people.

The measure is expected to win approval in the House soon.

Crittenden said Monday that if the legislation passes, he expects the panel's makeup to be much the same. The current panel will meet again in May.

Based on the cases panel members have looked at, they determined Monday that physicians, judges and social workers could use more training.

Hardin Family Court Judge Brent Hall, a panel member, also said there should be more openness in family courts and in child protection records.

Until that happens and more information is made public, he said, lawmakers aren't going to have a sense of urgency to deal with the problem of child abuse and neglect.

"I'm suggesting that we open up family court," Hall said after the meeting. "I'm suggesting that the dependency, neglect and abuse cases that we deal with on a regular basis be open to public and press scrutiny so that the things we do are transparent."

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter:@vhspears.

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