Group reviewing child abuse deaths fails to make specific recommendations

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comDecember 2, 2013 

FRANKFORT — An external panel created to review child-abuse deaths and serious injuries did not make specific legislative or policy changes in its first annual report as required by law.

The Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Panel decided instead to focus on improving Kentucky's child-fatality review process. One of those recommendations includes a $400,000 budget request for two staff members, a part-time lawyer and other expenses to help the 20-member panel dig through hundreds of case files about children killed or nearly killed as a result of abuse and neglect. Some of the case files contain more than 800 pages.

The panel was created by Gov. Steve Beshear in July 2012, and the legislature this year made the panel permanent. The legislation required that the panel prepare a list of recommendations by Dec. 1 for improving the child-protection system, and present them to Beshear, the legislature and Chief Justice John D. Minton. The panel is made up of doctors, prosecutors, police officers, judges, addiction specialists, child advocates and others.

Retired Franklin Circuit Judge Roger Crittenden, chairman of the panel, said at its Monday meeting that although the panel met more than eight times, it was not prepared to make specific recommendations.

"We have only been in existence a year, we've reviewed 55 cases and right now we are not prepared to make statutory recommendations," Crittenden said.

The group has struggled to figure out how to break down the voluminous information contained in the files and how to turn that data into specific recommendations.

A national expert on child-fatality reviews warned the panel during its September meeting to make specific recommendations that are backed up by data from the case files. Otherwise, the recommendations are rarely followed. It's not uncommon in the first year of an external child-fatality review panel's existence for it not to develop concrete recommendations on statutory or policy changes, national experts said in September.

Despite no specific recommendations, the report said the "panel noted disturbing trends and missed opportunities to prevent tragedies to children."

Some of the areas of concern the panel noted in its report and during its meetings include:

■ Common risk factors of domestic violence, criminal history and substance abuse by caretakers and family members.

■ The need for public awareness campaigns and targeted campaigns on specific public health issues including drownings and the number of children who die due to unsafe sleeping conditions

■ Lack of mental health services throughout Kentucky.

■ Many doctors and medical personnel are not trained to recognize the signs of physical abuse.

■ The workload, training and resources of social workers in state child protection is an ongoing concern.

Panel members said during Monday's meeting and in their report that they should be able to give more specific recommendations during the annual report in December 2014.

Also at Monday's meeting, the group opted to do more extensive reviews on a select number of cases. Typically, the group splits up cases, with each panel member reviewing four. That does not lead to an in-depth review of the case.

Teresa James, commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services and a panel member, said she wanted to see more rigorous review of the cases and more analysis of what went wrong. James oversees child protection services in Kentucky.

"I think we need to get down in the weeds in some of these cases, deeper than what we are now. And maybe not be so worried about hurting each others feelings," James said.

The panel's report will be discussed at a Dec. 18 meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare in Frankfort.

Crittenden said he also expected questions about the group's budget request. Although the General Assembly passed legislation to make the panel permanent, it has no full-time paid staff or budget. Without a staff person, it's difficult for the volunteer panel members to go through and analyze all of the files, Crittenden said.

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

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