The number of abuse and neglect cases that child-protection workers in Kentucky must juggle should not be a state secret.
Yet the panel created by the legislature to review child deaths and make recommendations for keeping Kentucky children safer can’t seem to get the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to share data about caseloads.
New Health and Family Services Secretary Vickie Yates Brown Glisson could get off to a good start by making it clear that she wants an end to the culture of secrecy.
The cabinet’s stubborn refusal to comply with the open records law has been costly.
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Just last week, the state Court of Appeals upheld a $16,000 ruling in favor of the Todd County Standard. The weekly in Elkton had to put up a legal fight to gain access to records that revealed failures in the child-protective system that contributed to the death of nine-year-old Amy Dye.
The appeals court has yet to rule on a lower court’s order that the cabinet owes the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville almost $1 million in penalties and legal costs incurred as the newspapers battled in the courts for years for access to public records of child deaths and the cabinet’s role in those deaths.
The biggest cost has been to the the cabinet’s credibility and the public trust.
As Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd wrote almost two years ago, in ruling in favor of the two daily newspapers, the cabinet’s repeated open records violations shielded “the cabinet’s own conduct (and sometimes, negligence) from public scrutiny.”
While transparency and accountability can make bureaucrats uncomfortable, it’s the surest path to win public and legislative support for more resources for child protection.
No one wants to scapegoat overworked case workers. Certainly, the Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel is looking only to support child-protective workers and strengthen the system, but it needs the numbers on caseloads and worker turnover to do its job. The cabinet should cooperate with that.
In its 2015 report the panel looked at 37 child deaths in which abuse or neglect are suspected: 16 were drug-related compared with five from physical abuse. Parents’ drug or alcohol use was the leading cause of death, mainly impaired adults sleeping with babies and accidentally smothering them; two children died after ingesting drugs.
Children dying because of drug-dependent parents are a tragic reminder that Kentucky’s addiction epidemic has the power to literally kill our future.
Secretary Glisson and the Bevin administration should make addiction prevention and treatment a high priority.