FRANKFORT — A bill aimed at reducing deaths and serious injuries from child abuse and neglect in Kentucky got an overhaul Wednesday by a Senate committee, which added several transparency requirements to the measure.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee unanimously passed a revised version of House Bill 290, which establishes a 20-person independent panel to review cases of children who have been killed or seriously injured as a result of abuse or neglect. The review panel is expected to recommended changes in the way Kentucky investigates and prosecutes child abuse deaths.
The measure now goes to the full Senate for consideration. The House passed HB 290 last month despite objections from the Kentucky Press Association that too much of the panel's work would be conducted in secret.
The Senate committee passed a revised HB 290 Wednesday that would ensure that the review panel's meetings would be open to the public. Under the proposal, the group's meetings could be closed only when the panel discussed topics that state law already allows to be deliberated behind closed doors.
Committee Chairwoman Julie Denton, R-Louisville, said that if the panel goes into closed session, it would then report in open session what was discussed "without giving out identifying information."
The bill would also ensure that documents used by the panel would remain subject to the Kentucky Open Records Act. The documents would not be released by the panel but by the agency that has custody of the original documents.
Denton also added a provision that would put the review panel under the purview of the legislature's Program Review and Investigations Committee, although the panel will remain attached to the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet for administrative purposes.
Denton said she tried to find a home for the panel outside the executive branch of state government but couldn't because there was no funding available to staff the panel.
The Senate version also deleted a requirement that panel members disclose conflicts of interests. Denton said she deleted the provision because she feared that it would add costs, which would probably kill the bill this legislative session.
Denton said during Wednesday's meeting that the Senate version of House Bill 290 struck a proper balance on the issue of transparency. The panel must be able to review documents that it needs to make recommended changes, but the public must be able to understand how the panel makes its decisions and recommendations, she said.
Gov. Steve Beshear created the independent panel by executive order in July after newspaper stories highlighted shortcomings in the child protection system. For the panel to continue, it needs legislative approval.
The panel has met twice since July but has been given censored copies of social worker case files. HB 290 would let the panel see uncensored case files from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and would allow it to ask for information from other agencies, such as the Kentucky State Police.
Jon Fleischaker, a lawyer with the Kentucky Press Association, said after Wednesday's vote that the changes made to HB 290 would make it easier for the public to determine how the panel does its work.
"It's substantially better than the original House bill," Fleischaker said. "The meetings will not be fully closed ... There will be much more transparency."
Denton said the Senate could vote on the measure as early as Thursday.
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, applauded the Senate's changes.
"This represents progress for Kentucky's kids, and we encourage the Senate to pass the bill this session," Brooks said.