FRANKFORT — A House committee unanimously passed a bill Thursday that would create a panel to review deaths and near-deaths of children who are neglected or abused while under the state's supervision.
But several members of the House Health and Welfare Committee said they would not support the bill on the House floor unless it was amended to provide more transparency.
House Bill 441, sponsored by Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, would create a panel of experts to review fatalities and near-fatalities of children who are neglected or abused while they are under the supervision of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. The bill, however, would exempt the panel from disclosing to the public its conversations and documents regarding neglected and abused children.
After the review, the panel would develop recommendations to address systemic issues and child welfare practices. Any problems the panel identified in the actions of state and local agencies would be referred to authorities for review.
Burch said the panel would increase the transparency of information about child deaths and provide more oversight of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. However, only summaries of the cabinet's recommendations would be available to the public.
But Jason Nemes, a lawyer for the Kentucky Press Association, countered that the panel would conceal more information about the cabinet's actions by keeping the records secret and exempt from public scrutiny.
"It removes the transparency that we have today," Nemes said of HB441.
The cabinet has long refused to release files on children who died while being monitored by social workers. Most recently, it has been fighting the state's two largest newspapers over the release of records.
The Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville sued the state last year seeking records about the death of 20-month-old Kayden Branham, who died in May 2009 after drinking substances allegedly used in the production of methamphetamine.
A Franklin Circuit Court judge ruled that the cabinet had to turn over documents about Kayden and his 14-year-old mother, who also was being supervised by the cabinet.
The two newspapers again sued the state in January after officials denied a second round of requests for documents about child deaths, citing emergency regulations the state put in place after losing the first court case.
The emergency regulation limits the release of information about the actions of child protection workers in cases involving children who are killed or severely injured because of abuse and neglect.
The cabinet, in court documents filed Wednesday in federal court in Frankfort, sought to have the latest lawsuit transferred from Franklin Circuit Court to federal court. The cabinet alleges that federal law does not allow the state agency to disclose information about children who die while in their care.
Robert Houlihan Jr., a lawyer for the Herald-Leader, said the newspaper will fight the transfer to federal court and said the newspapers think the issue should be litigated in state court.
Burch told the committee he was going to offer a floor amendment that would ensure all the records of the panel would be available to the public.
Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, and others on the committee said they could not support the measure unless the amendment was filed.