State appeals order requiring release of documents on child-abuse deaths

bestep@herald-leader.comApril 2, 2014 

The state has appealed an order requiring it to give Kentucky's two largest newspapers documents on children killed or badly injured as a result of abuse or neglect.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services announced this week that it had asked the state Court of Appeals to review the ruling, and that it had asked that the case be transferred to the Kentucky Supreme Court in order to get a final answer.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ordered the cabinet to give the records to the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal in response to requests from the Lexington and Louisville newspapers.

Shepherd also ordered the cabinet to pay a $756,000 fine, saying it had willfully violated the state's open-records law by withholding public information, and that it had refused to follow his instructions on releasing the information.

Shepherd also ordered the cabinet to pay more than $300,000 to the newspapers for attorneys' fees.

The cabinet has released thousands of pages to the newspapers on cases from 2009 and 2010 under an order from Shepherd, but Shepherd ruled that the state inappropriately removed more information from the documents than it should have.

The records showed that the cabinet did not conduct required internal reviews of at least some fatalities and near-fatalities, and that some reviews were far less detailed than others.

"The cabinet is seeking a final resolution to this long-standing disagreement between the state's two largest newspapers and the cabinet over the privacy of family members and other individuals identified in child fatality files," cabinet spokeswoman Jill Midkiff said in a news release.

The cabinet hired Louisville attorney Sheryl Snyder to help its attorneys with the appeal. His firm agreed to take the case for an hourly rate of $125 for attorneys, according to the news release.

Snyder, who has represented Kentucky governors in a number of cases, said in a statement that Shepherd's ruling raised significant legal questions.

"Public agencies are entitled to clear, final decisions by the courts when the agencies respond to open records requests. Only the appellate court can bring finality to these legal issues," Snyder said.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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