FRANKFORT — Family court judges told a legislative panel Thursday that opening juvenile courts to more public scrutiny would improve Kentucky's child-protection system.
The judges — who oversee abuse, neglect and other juvenile court proceedings — told the House Health and Welfare Committee that they also support a measure to create an external review panel to examine fatalities and near-fatalities of abused and neglected children.
The judges also told lawmakers that Kentucky's child-protection system is stretched too thin, with not enough social workers or services to protect vulnerable children. Good child-protection workers are leaving, and those who remain are exhausted, said Bullitt County Family Court Judge Elise Givhan Spainhour.
"I had a social worker yesterday break down in tears in the courtroom because she was operating on four hours of sleep," Spainhour said.
The state's next two-year budget promises to be austere, but the judges said protecting children had to be Kentucky's top priority.
"We're going to have to decide, are we going to spend this money on roads? Or are we going to spend it on our children?" Spainhour said.
On the issue of opening juvenile courts, Jefferson County Family Court Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald testified that national family court associations now recommend opening family courts to the public.
Studies conducted during the past several years, along with recommendations by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services' Inspector General, have said juvenile courts should be opened to create more transparency in the state's child-protection program.
"Closed courts just protect failed systems," said Paula Sherlock, a Jefferson County Family Court judge.
House Bill 239 would create pilot programs to open juvenile court proceedings. A similar measure was filed last year but did not become law. The pilot programs — one in each state Supreme Court judicial district — would lapse after four years unless lawmakers renewed them.
Sherlock said the majority of the state's 51 family court judges support the pilot project to look at opening the state's family courts. Still, there are misgivings on the part of some judges about what information should be available to the media and the public. That's why the pilot project is important, Sherlock said.
The proposed legislation says no private information about the identities of the people involved would be released. It also says a judge could inspect a reporter's notes.
That could be problematic, said Jon Fleischaker, a lawyer for the Kentucky Press Association and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.
"That could create quite a problem, a constitutional problem," Fleischaker said.
Allowing a judge to decide what is printed or said could be construed as prior restraint of free speech, he said.
Judges also recommended that lawmaker's expand House Bill 200 — which would create an external review panel to review fatalities and near-fatalities of abused and neglected children — to include deaths that the Cabinet for Health and Family Services might not have deemed to be caused by abuse and neglect.
Sherlock said there are many deaths that initially seem like accidents but might stem from neglect or abuse.
"We strongly support transparency and independent review," Sherlock said. "It's not just independent review of the cabinet, it's independent review of the entire process."
However, the proposed legislation would close the external review committee's meetings to the public and keep the information it reviews a secret. That should be changed, Sherlock said.
"The rather Draconian restrictions on the work of this committee could very well result in an external review committee being no different than the information that you're getting from the cabinet," Sherlock said.
Another key problem in the child protection system has been lack of services for parents of children in the system, said FitzGerald, the Louisville judge.
Without these programs — such as drug treatment and counseling — it's impossible for social workers and the child protection system to work, she said.
"We have fewer services and fewer interventions that are available," she said.
Teresa James, acting commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, told legislators that the department, which oversees child protection, has had to cut key services during the past three years because of budget constraints.
James said the average caseload for a social workers is now 18.2, slightly more than the recommended level of 17 cases per social worker. However, James said workloads have increased as more reporting and other paperwork requirements have been added.