FRANKFORT — A volunteer panel charged with reviewing the deaths and near-deaths of abused or neglected children hopes to hire a lawyer by August and additional staff by fall to analyze hundreds of social worker case files.
The Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel was appropriated $420,000 during this year's legislative session to hire additional staff to conduct the analysis and recommend how to improve the state's child-protection system.
Retired Franklin Circuit Judge Roger Crittenden told a legislative panel Thursday that hiring the additional staff would allow the 20-member panel to back the recommendations with solid data. Crittenden said the panel was supposed to meet only quarterly but now meets every other month.
"We are looking at developing a systemwide model to determine where the breakdowns took place," Crittenden told the legislature's Program Review and Investigations Committee.
The panel was created by Gov. Steve Beshear via executive order in July 2012. The legislature then codified the panel in 2013 but initially gave it no money to operate.
Since its inception, the panel has struggled to analyze the voluminous case files of children who have been killed or grievously injured as a result of abuse. Some of the case files are more than 1,500 pages long. In fiscal year 2013, which ended a year ago, the panel reviewed 115 fatalities and near-fatalities. This calendar year, it's scheduled to review 57 cases.
The panel is required to make a report with recommendations to state authorities by Dec. 1 of each year. Last year's report, however, didn't make any recommendations. The panel's work also is supposed to be reviewed each year by the legislature.
Colleen Kennedy, a staffer with the Program Review and Investigations Committee, told the committee during Thursday's meeting that the panel had complied with the legislature's directive but had been hampered by its lack of staff to analyze data.
Kennedy said the $420,000 appropriation would help resolve that problem.
Kennedy also cautioned that in future years, it will be difficult to determine the efficacy of the panel's work because child fatalities and near-fatalities fluctuate from year to year.
Jenny Oldham, the county attorney for Hardin County and a member of the review panel, said the group's work would pay off, but it would take time.
The panel hopes to make systematic improvements to the state's child-protection system — including improving communication among social workers, police, school officials and prosecutors — but such changes don't come quickly, she said.
"We want them all to take ownership of child abuse," Oldham said. "I think it's going to take a longer view."
The panel can make recommendations, but it has no authority to require their implementation by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services or other public agencies. State Sen. Dan Seum, R-Louisville, questioned whether the panel could be effective if it had no teeth.
If the panel's recommendations are not followed, Crittenden said, the group will return to Program Review and Investigations or other legislative committees to report the lack of compliance.
Crittenden said after the meeting that the panel hoped to have a staff attorney hired by August. It also is considering contracting with nurses who specialize in pediatric abuse to help review cases. He said he hoped that contract would be finalized by fall.