In a column appearing in Kentucky newspapers, Gov. Steve Beshear is defending the idea of maintaining state secrecy about circumstances surrounding children who have died after citizens reported suspected child abuse to state officials. He said he is fighting alongside the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and its lawyers and seeks to justify the state's appeal of judicial rulings of the Franklin Circuit Court.
In January, that court ordered the cabinet to disclose information about cases where children died after complaints of child abuse were made to state authorities. I urge the governor to reconsider his allegiance to the cabinet on this issue and to see the bigger picture of what is in the best interest of the people of Kentucky.
The publicity surrounding recent tragic deaths of children in Kentucky, and the now public shenanigans of the cabinet — caught lying about what it knew and when it knew it — have triggered a rare public anger. The death of 9-year-old Amy Dye of Todd County has become a focal point of statewide anger about the senseless deaths of children and a symbol of state incompetence. People seem eager to find out what went wrong and want to fix the problem. They feel that the safety of children is at stake and secrecy stands in the way.
Openness should always be the rule where government is involved. I have come to believe that secrecy in courts of law should be eliminated in every adversarial action initiated by any agency of the state. Non-adversarial actions, such as private uncontested adoptions or adoptions after parental rights have previously been terminated, should remain confidential.
I have been a circuit judge in western Kentucky for 17 years. Before that, I served as district judge. Judges have a front-row seat to every variety of real-life struggle involving children and families in confidential cases initiated by the cabinet. Over the years, I have observed an infrequent, but persistent, pattern of bizarre actions by lawyers and high-level cabinet officials that occur almost exclusively in confidential cases such as juvenile cases, termination of parental rights and involuntarily hospitalizations. Secrecy allows people to do things in ways that they would not dare do in a public setting.
For example, in 2008 one of the lawyers, with full knowledge of the cabinet secretary, intentionally fought to release a committed patient from a state psychiatric hospital even though the lawyer openly admitted that, in the opinion of the state's physicians, the patient was still likely to harm himself or another person upon release. The lawyer argued in this secret court setting that the state owed no duty to protect the mentally ill person or to protect others he might harm when released.
This was done because the patient was troublesome to the state employees and hospital administrators who then put pressure on the cabinet to get the patient out of the hospital. This is how the cabinet protects citizens when secrecy prevails. This same lawyer is now working alongside the governor to maintain cabinet secrecy.
The cabinet is consumed with a bureaucratic mentality and an institutional incompetence. Cabinet leadership is greatly influenced by a small group of senior lawyers. Cabinet employees are directed to blindly follow its own internally created guidelines, ignoring all else. Reason, pleading, common sense and sometimes not even a court order can dissuade a supervisor from strictly following these guidelines. The cabinet has become a law unto itself.
Confidentiality is more often used to hide state incompetence or misconduct than to protect citizens. 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.
While we can always find some downside to open government, the consequences of government secrecy are far worse. We need only look to the courts and governments of totalitarian regimes such as China, North Korea, Iran or Cuba.
As for the governor's concern that releasing the names of people who report child abuse will cause people to be afraid to report it, I believe, in the long run, we will protect more children if we get the cabinet to respond to the reports made. Full disclosure is the only way the public can know whether reports of abuse have been ignored.
The people of Todd County are painfully aware of the likelihood that a multitude of reports of suspected abuse were made by teachers and school officials about Amy Dye in the years before her death, several of which may have been mishandled or misplaced. I seriously doubt any of those who made reports would have allowed fear for their personal safety to keep them from speaking out. Their fear was for Amy.
I urge 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.