Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd demonstrated not only mastery of the legal issues but also a clear understanding of human nature in his ruling last week that the Cabinet for Health and Family Services unlawfully withheld records in the death of a toddler in an alleged meth lab.
The legislature should heed Shepherd's wisdom and take action to open the Cabinet's records when a child under its care dies.
Shepherd's ruling came in the case of Kayden Daniels, a 20-month-old who was in the foster care system, along with his 14-year-old mother, when he died as a result of drinking drain cleaner. The toxic substance is used in making meth.
Citing Kentucky's Open Records Act, the Herald-Leader had requested the records on both juveniles but the cabinet denied the request.
The newspaper took its request to the attorney general's office, which upheld the cabinet's decision. Shepherd heard the appeal to that decision. The cabinet has not said if it plans to appeal Shepherd's ruling.
"A foster care system that operates in secret, without public scrutiny or accountability, even in this extreme case where a child in foster care has lost his life, is a system that is operating outside the scope of the legislative mandate for public accountability," Shepherd wrote, explaining his view of the legal situation.
But he went on: "This reflects a systemic failure that will inevitably lead to covering up, rather than fixing, the problems."
It's the inevitability that demands action from lawmakers.
If allowed to operate behind closed doors, bureaucracies, like individuals, will tend to protect themselves rather than ferreting out the truth.
That's no way to do the public's business. It's doubly unacceptable when the public is assuming the responsibility of caring for the most vulnerable and powerless among us, abused and neglected children.
Last fall, a legislative committee chose not to adopt a plan to open up records in child abuse fatalities.
Instead, the committee appointed a 27-member panel to review the issue and make guidelines for releasing information in these cases.
The chairman of the panel would be the head of the Department of Community Based services, which always denies requests to release the records.
If the issue weren't so serious, that solution would be almost laughable.
Open records laws require public officials to debate policy in the open and to tell us how they spend our tax dollars.
Certainly, opening the books on the state's role when a child in its care dies is every bit as important.
The General Assembly must make that perfectly clear as soon as possible.
A copy of the judge's ruling can be found on Kentucky.com.