Expert says Kentucky's child abuse review panel needs funding and staff

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comSeptember 9, 2013 

A panel charged with reviewing Kentucky's child-protection system needs funding, staff and specific recommendations if it hopes to prevent deaths from abuse and neglect, a national expert told the group Monday.

Teri Covington, director of the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths, told the Kentucky Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Panel that a similar group in Michigan struggled more than a decade ago to configure a review system that worked.

Covington, who headed the review panel in Michigan, said the group developed nearly 100 recommendations in its first three years, which it forwarded to Michigan's child-protection chief.

Nothing happened.

"You guys are giving me junk," the state official told the group, Covington said.

In response, the group narrowed its recommendations to 20, gave specific examples from individual abuse cases and provided clear direction about which agency should implement each change in policy.

The changes generated results.

For example, Michigan implemented statewide training for all doctors on the signs of abuse after the panel noticed that emergency room doctors and pediatricians often missed signs of abuse. Doctors in Michigan have access to experts in pediatric abuse if they have questions about a particular child, she said.

Covington's remarks came as the Kentucky panel — created in July 2012 by executive order and approved by the legislature earlier this year — grapples with how to make recommendations for improving the state's child-protection system.

The panel has met five times, but it has struggled to manage the more than 70 cases it can review for the most recent fiscal year and generate a report by Dec. 1.

The panel decided Monday that its first report will focus on some of Covington's recommendations about how to improve the child fatality review process. The group includes prosecutors, judges, drug and alcohol addiction counselors, doctors and the state's chief medical examiner.

Joel Griffith, an administrator of Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, recommended that the group start a subcommittee to consider the panel's staffing needs and develop a budget proposal.

The Justice and Public Safety Cabinet provides one staff member to the panel, but only 25 percent of that person's time is spent on the panel's business. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which provides the case files reviewed by the panel, also offers staff assistance.

Covington said the panel needs a full-time staffer who can help summarize case files for the group and track down records. Michigan provided state funding for the position, she said.

Griffith also recommended Monday that the group meet more often than quarterly so it can do a more thorough review of child abuse deaths and generate meaningful recommendations. The group will meet again in November, December and January. The November meeting will focus on completing the group's Dec. 1 report.

Kentucky is one of several states that have created external review panels in recent years to evaluate their child-protection systems, Covington said.

Colorado and Tennessee recently passed legislation creating review panels.

Many of the panels were started after children's-rights groups or media companies filed lawsuits pushing for more transparency in the child-protection system. Kentucky's external review panel was started after the state's two largest newspapers — the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville — sued the state to get child-protection records for children who died or were critically injured as a result of abuse or neglect.

Beth Musgrave: (859) 231-3205. Twitter: @HLCityhall.

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