We've long suspected that Gov. Steve Beshear and Secretary Janie Miller, the departing head of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, were getting bad advice from insiders who want to maintain the wall of secrecy around child abuse deaths in Kentucky.
Our suspicions are reinforced by recent events, including a letter sent out by the governor and another written in response by a Western Kentucky judge who takes the cabinet's lawyers to task.
With Miller's resignation and the leadership change that's coming to this sprawling bureaucracy, Beshear has an opportunity to shake up its culture of secrecy.
He should seize that opportunity, because good government withers in the dark. He should seize it to instill accountability in a system that is responsible for protecting children. And he should seize it to protect himself from future embarrassments, such as that letter that we and other newspapers published.
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In it, Beshear defended the decision to keep fighting a court order opening state records in child fatalities or near fatalities. Beshear, or his ghostwriter, either misunderstands Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd's order or willfully misconstrued it.
Beshear's letter also raised groundless alarms about what might befall a teacher or someone else who, as the law requires, reports suspected child abuse. Anyone, including teachers, has always been able to report child abuse anonymously. That's not changing.
Also, Shepherd's order, which opens records only in cases of deaths or near deaths, would allow the names of informants to be kept confidential, on a case-by-case basis, to shield them from retaliation. Information also could be withheld if its release might jeopardize a criminal prosecution — contrary to the impression created by Beshear's letter.
This kind of overwrought exaggeration has typified the administration's response to calls for less secrecy.
A year ago, officials were insisting that opening any records would cost Kentucky tens of millions of federal dollars by violating confidentiality standards, even though federal law encourages states to open the records being sought by this newspaper and others.
In November, when Beshear declared a new day of transparency and said the state would begin releasing the records, not a word was said about losing federal money, because it was never a possibility.
In his letter, published last week, Circuit Judge Tyler Gill of Logan and Todd counties, made the case that openness will do more to protect children. "Do not be misled. The cabinet's appeal of the Franklin Circuit Court ruling is not a high minded effort to protect the privacy of persons who report child abuse. It is to protect the cabinet."
Gill, who has seen the cabinet in action in many closed hearings, said "teachers and school officials who report child abuse are neither afraid for themselves nor ashamed of their actions."
He ended by urging Beshear to "stop listening to the cabinet's lawyers and to start battling for the people of Kentucky. Our children deserve an open and accountable government."
That's advice worth taking.