The state unlawfully withheld records about a 20-month-old boy who was in the foster-care system when he drank drain cleaner at an alleged methamphetamine lab and died, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd said there was no legal reason for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services to deny access to the records, which had been requested by two newspapers.
Shepherd said the death of Kayden Daniels, also known as Kayden Branham, might have been a tragic accident that was unavoidable even if the child-welfare system worked perfectly, or it might have resulted from a failure in the system.
Either way, Shepherd said, the public has a right to know the facts.
Without that public scrutiny, there can be no real accountability for the child-welfare system, he said.
"While it should go without saying, it perhaps must be spelled out in the context of this case: It is not unwarranted for the public, and the press, to want to know what happened when a 20-month-old child in the care and legal custody of the Commonwealth of Kentucky winds up dead after drinking toxic substances in a meth lab," Shepherd said in the strongly worded ruling.
The cabinet issued a statement saying officials are reviewing the ruling to decide whether to appeal.
The ruling could play a significant role in the debate about the confidentiality of records related to children who die while under the state's protection.
Child-welfare advocates and newspapers have pushed to open those records, but the cabinet has opposed such disclosure.
"It's a breath of fresh air and a real breakthrough," David Richart, executive director of the Louisville-based National Institute on Children Youth and Families, said of Shepherd's ruling.
Bill Grimm, a senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif., said agencies around the country that are supposed to protect children too often shield themselves from scrutiny of their failures.
"Judge Shepherd rightly concluded that withholding information about a child's death in foster care is neither in the public interest nor in the interests of children," said Grimm.
Attorneys for the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal in Louisville sought Shepherd's ruling after the Cabinet for Health and Family Services refused requests by the newspapers for records related to Kayden.
The boy, who lived in Monticello, died May 30 after drinking a corrosive drain cleaner that can be used in making meth. He drank the liquid from a cup that was sitting out at a trailer where several people allegedly made meth.
The boy's father, Bryan Daniels, and others were charged with making meth. Daniels also is charged with murder.
His attorney, Mark Stanziano, said Tuesday that Daniels did not know the liquid was in the cup, didn't make meth and did nothing to cause his son's death.
"He didn't do anything wrong, nothing," Stanziano said.
Kayden and his mother, Alisha Branham, who was 14 when the boy died, had been placed in the state foster-care program for abused and neglected children, Shepherd said.
The Herald-Leader asked the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services in June to release any records it had on Kayden or his mother. The cabinet declined to release the records, citing privacy and other considerations.
The state attorney general's office upheld the cabinet's decision to withhold the records. The legal arguments by both agencies were wrong, Shepherd said.
The state Open Records Act requires release of public records, with narrowly drawn exceptions. None of those applied to the records at issue in the case, Shepherd said.
The cabinet's bias in favor of confidentiality seems to be driven more by the culture of the agency, "which seeks to avoid public scrutiny," than by the law, Shepherd said.
If the records the newspapers sought are released, there is a risk some state officials or employees will be unfairly singled out for criticism, Shepherd said.
Unlike Kayden, however, they will be able to respond and defend themselves, he said. Secrecy in the foster-care system will lead to covering up problems rather than fixing them, Shepherd said.
Herald-Leader Editor Peter Baniak said the newspaper strongly believes openness should be the rule when a child dies while under the state's care.
"It is impossible for the public to judge whether the system for protecting vulnerable children is working properly if such records remain hidden," Baniak said.