State social workers failed to protect a 9-year-old Todd County girl who was brutally beaten to death, ignoring repeated reports by school officials that they suspected she was being abused, a Kentucky judge said in a ruling on Monday.
The Cabinet for Health and Family Services had approved the little girl's adoption even though it had substantiated an earlier case of abuse in the home, according to Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip J. Shepherd.
Details about the cabinet's involvement with Amythz Dye, who was beaten to death with a jack handle by her adoptive brother, were included in Shepherd's ruling. The opinion ordered the state to release its documents regarding the girl to the weekly Todd County Standard newspaper, which had sued to get the records.
The cabinet first failed to respond to the newspaper's request, then denied it had any records, which wasn't true, Shepherd's opinion said.
"This case presents a tragic example of the potentially deadly consequences of a child welfare system that has completely insulated itself from meaningful public scrutiny," Shepherd said.
A spokeswoman said the cabinet's only response Monday was that officials were reviewing the decision.
Ryan Craig, editor and publisher of the Todd County Standard, said he was happy Shepherd ruled for the paper, but troubled by the abuse the records say Amythz suffered, and by the cabinet's actions in the case.
"Without a doubt, there were several instances where they could have saved this little girl's life," Craig said of social workers.
Craig said Gov. Steve Beshear should act on the findings in the case.
"We're going to be reviewing that decision, along with the cabinet," Beshear told reporters Monday evening in Louisville. "Our cabinet works hard in the area of child protection. They try to balance the interest of the public's right to know with the private interests of the individuals involved."
In an opinion that seemed incredulous at points, Shepherd said the cabinet turned a blind eye to reports of suspected abuse and neglect of the little girl.
He said that in its response to the open-records lawsuit, the cabinet argued it had no jurisdiction to investigate the reports of abuse because it was a sibling, not a caregiver, hurting Amythz.
Shepherd flatly rejected the cabinet's arguments.
"It is stunning to believe that the cabinet will refuse to protect a child from repeated acts of physical violence by a sibling when the parent knows and tolerates such abuse and does nothing to prevent it," Shepherd wrote. "Yet that is exactly what happened here, even if we accept the cabinet's factual assertions."
It is clear under state law that abuse includes situations in which a parent or guardian ignores physical abuse of one child by another, or fails to take action, Shepherd said.
The cabinet also failed to notify police of the abuse reports, as required, and did not do a required internal review of her death, Shepherd said.
In circumstances like the Todd County case, the state Open Records Act is the only method through which the public and legislature can get information "regarding the systemic breakdown of our child protective services that contributed so directly to this child's death," Shepherd wrote.
The case is the second in as many weeks in which Shepherd has been sharply critical of attempts by the cabinet to withhold records on deaths and near deaths of children who have had involvement with the state child-welfare system.
In the other lawsuit, the judge said the cabinet failed to follow the law when it denied access to child-death records that the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville had sought.
Shepherd also ruled last year that the cabinet had improperly withheld records from the newspapers about its involvement with a 20-month-old Wayne County boy who drank drain cleaner at a mobile home where people had allegedly used the chemical to make methamphetamine.
The roots of the Todd County case go back several years.
The cabinet approved letting Kimberly Dye adopt Amythz in 2006 after she'd been removed from her home in another state because of severe neglect and sexual abuse.
The girl was Dye's great-niece. Dye had two sons who were 10 years older and eight years older than Amythz. She was divorced, but her ex-husband, Christopher, moved back in at some point.
The cabinet had substantiated that Christopher Dye physically abused one of his sons in 2003.
As reports of Amythz being abused "flooded in" beginning in 2007, there is no indication the cabinet looked into Christopher Dye's background, Shepherd said.
Shepherd said the cabinet received at least eight reports from credible sources of suspected abuse to Amythz. Those included reports that one of her brothers had, at various times, thrown her across a bed and kicked her, shot her in the arm with a BB gun, and hit her in the head with a shovel, the ruling said.
Cabinet employees called Kimberly Dye about the reports at times. In one case when an employee called to ask about reports of bruises on the girl's face, Dye admitted telling the girl not to tell anyone, according to Shepherd's ruling.
In another case, the cabinet got a report from a school nurse that the girl had a thumbprint on her face. Amythz said one of her brothers had done it, but that Dye had said she would spank the girl if she told anyone, the nurse reported.
The cabinet took no action to protect the girl despite the reports, despite knowing she was in a home with an adult it had said abused another child, despite knowing one of her adoptive brothers had drug problems and had been caught taking a gun to school, the ruling said.
On Feb. 4, Amythz and her brother Garrett Dye, 17, were outside in the bitter cold, shoveling gravel into potholes in the driveway as punishment, when he beat her to death by hitting her in the head with the handle of a hydraulic jack, said Gail Guiling, commonwealth's attorney for Todd County.
Garrett Dye pleaded guilty but hasn't been sentenced. The recommended sentence is 50 years, Guiling said Monday.
Guiling said the teen offered no explanation for killing the vivacious 9-year-old, saying "I just don't know, sir," when the judge asked him why he did it.
"This really is a tragic case," Guiling said. "I'm convinced she didn't have to die."