Social workers say releasing full details of child-abuse deaths would harm families

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comJuly 30, 2013 

FRANKFORT — Child-protection workers told a Franklin Circuit Court judge Tuesday they feared people would not report child abuse and children would be psychologically scarred if uncensored social-worker case files were released to the public.

Angela Taylor, a 19-year social work veteran, testified Tuesday about documents regarding the August 2009 death of Gaige Pyles, a 7-month-old Kenton County boy whose father was convicted in his death. Gaige had several half-siblings who may not know all of the details of his death, Taylor said.

"I am worried about them reading about this case in the news," Taylor said.

Taylor was one of a half dozen state social workers who testified Tuesday during a multi-day hearing about what information can be redacted from the state's files on children who were killed or nearly killed as a result of abuse and neglect.

The Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville have been in a three-year legal fight with the state over what can be released when a child has been killed or critically injured as a result of abuse and neglect.

Judge Phillip Shepherd has previously ruled that child-protection records are closed, with the sole exception of child deaths and near deaths. In those cases, Shepherd ruled that the public has an overriding interest in knowing how the state performed its job of protecting vulnerable children.

He said information removed from the files should be limited to names of child victims who are hurt but don't die, the names of private citizens who report suspected abuse, the names of minor siblings of victims and the names of minor perpetrators.

However, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services redacted far more information from the 140 case files sought by the newspapers, including the names of every adult interviewed by the cabinet, all people who reported abuse, the names of parents who had been charged or convicted of abuse, and addresses of their own offices.

Lawyers for the media on Tuesday questioned why the cabinet had removed critical information from Gaige's file when some of the information that was redacted has been publicly released elsewhere.

Mike Abate, a lawyer for the Courier-Journal, showed Taylor several published news reports about Matthew Pyles' charges and subsequent trial. Abate also showed Taylor a published obituary that listed all of the relatives that the cabinet had removed from the case file that was turned over to the media.

In the version of the obituary contained in the cabinet's case file, names were whited out.

"Why would you redact a public document?" Abate asked.

Taylor was a supervisor that helped investigate Gaige's case and got Matthew Pyles to confess that he had injured Gaige. Taylor said some of Gaige's siblings have been teased because of the incident and another child had to receive psychological counseling.

Matthew Pyles was convicted in May 2010 of second-degree manslaughter and was given a 10-year prison sentence. However, he is scheduled to be released on Thursday after serving fewer than four years for Gaige's death.

"Don't you think it would be in the public's interest to know that an individual who has inflicted this type of injury on a seven-month-old baby ... is going to be set free within just a few years of killing that child?" asked Kif Skidmore, a lawyer for the Herald-Leader.

"I think the public should want to know that, but I don't know if they should know that," Taylor said of the fact that few people convicted of serious crimes against children serve their full sentence.

Child-protection workers also told Shepherd Tuesday that much of social work is based on confidentiality. Releasing information about who reported the abuse or who social workers interviewed to determine if abuse occurred could have a chilling effect on future reporting of abuse and neglect.

Social workers also said that many of the relatives of abused children have volatile and fluid family situations. Releasing detailed information about a child's death could stoke long-simmering tensions and put people in danger, they testified.

Marlene McKenzie, a social worker from Laurel County, said she was concerned that releasing a case file regarding the death of Stephen Troy would jeopardize the adults that she interviewed during her investigation of the 23-month-old's October 2009 beating death. Troy was hurt so badly that his bowel was perforated.

Amanda Johnson, Stephen Troy's mother, was convicted in that case, but the Kentucky Supreme Court overturned the mother's abuse conviction and ordered a new trial.

The cabinet has refused to release the case file to the media, saying that doing so could hurt an ongoing criminal prosecution.

Skidmore pointed out that many of the people who McKenzie said she was concerned about protecting, including a neighbor, testified publicly during Johnson's trial. Their names also are published online in the state Supreme Court ruling regarding Johnson's case, Skidmore said.

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

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