It took a tragedy; but at long last, some light is falling on a bureaucracy that for too long has hidden from public accountability when children in its care die.
Kudos to the Beshear administration for deciding not to appeal a May ruling that requires disclosure of state records related to the death of Kayden Branham and to any child who dies because of abuse or neglect. Kayden was 20 months old in 2009 when he drank a toxic chemical in a meth lab in Wayne County where he and his 14-year-old mother had been living. Both children had been in foster care.
The Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which has had a blanket policy of refusing all disclosure in child abuse and neglect cases, might have wanted to avoid enshrining Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd's strong Open Records ruling in a higher-court decision. Whatever the motive, any glimmer of transparency is welcome and overdue.
From what we learned last week, though, the institutional instinct to shut out public scrutiny will not change easily. The cabinet entirely missed the point of Shepherd's ruling by releasing only a 13-page report on the child's death. The public interest is in knowing what the cabinet did or did not do before the child died, when the tragedy might have been prevented.
At the request of the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal, Shepherd ordered the entire record turned over. The judge is studying the documents to decide what information can be legitimately withheld, for example, to protect the privacy of other family members.
Also last week, we learned that the cabinet failed to do the internal review required by law when a child who has been in state care dies. A cabinet lawyer said the "broad nature" of a Wayne County judge's gag order precluded the internal review. But the gag was in effect for less than two months, and the cabinet could have reviewed its own actions without questioning anyone covered by the order. Again, we see an institutional resistance not just to public scrutiny but also to self-examination.
Kentuckians need to know why a teen mother had to choose between living with her toddler in a home that had no food, water and electricity or a home where methamphetamine was manufactured. We need to know how government agencies performed. We need to know because other children and families are being crushed under the strains of addiction, dysfunction and poverty.
If the state is failing them, we need to know how and where, so the child-protection system can be strengthened. Such disclosures might be embarrassing to some state employees. But the law does not allow state agencies to hide their mistakes by withholding public records.
As Shepherd wrote in May, "The loss of life here may have been a tragic accident that was unavoidable even if the child welfare system had worked perfectly. Or it may have been the result of a systemic failure on the part of the cabinet that needs to be corrected.
"Either way, the public has a right to know the facts and to make its own judgment. Without public scrutiny of the events in question, there can be no real accountability."
And without strong leadership from the administration (and failing that, the legislature) the bureaucratic and human impulse will be to hide from accountability.