Kentucky parents might face drug tests if child dies while in their care

FRANKFORT — A panel of independent experts might recommend the state pass a law that would require parents to take drug or alcohol tests if a child dies in their care.

A toxicology report might have helped police decide whether criminal neglect charges should have been filed in the death of a 2-month-old boy who was found dead face-down on a pillow in April 2012. Both parents later admitted to being high on opiates at the time of the child's death, according to social worker case files.

"This was not SIDS," or sudden infant death syndrome, said Dr. Tracey Corey, the state's chief medical examiner and a member of the Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel, which met Monday.

The boy's death is one of more than 140 deaths and near-deaths as a result of abuse and neglect the panel is reviewing to determine how the state's child protection system can improve. The 20-member panel was created by Gov. Steve Beshear in July 2012 and was made permanent by the legislature earlier this year. Monday was the panel's first meeting since House Bill 290 became law in June.

The boy's death also highlighted some glaring communication holes among law enforcement, social workers and the chief medical examiner. Social workers also could have done more to address issues with the family, the panel found Monday.

Corey performed the boy's autopsy. But she told the panel Monday that her autopsy report and final conclusions were not part of the social worker case files. Moreover, Corey said that at the time of the autopsy she was told only that the boy had been born addicted to drugs and not that the parents had admitted using drugs the night of his death. Additionally, she was not told that social workers had been working with the family at the time of the baby's death. The family was part of an intensive treatment program for parents who have substance abuse problems.

"I was not told that they were high or stoned ... on Opana," Corey said.

She said she ultimately ruled that the cause of death was undetermined because she had enough other information to know it was not a SIDS case. But no criminal charges were filed, she noted.

Corey said that she had another case several years ago in Jefferson County in which a child was left alone in a hot car and later died. The mother admitted to being high on Xanax and marijuana at the time. Police tried to get a court order to get the mother tested for drugs.

"That was denied," Corey said.

She said people are routinely tested for drugs and alcohol after fatal traffic accidents. Parents or someone supervising a child at the time of the child's death also should be tested for drugs or alcohol, she said.

Joel Griffith, an administrator with Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, said that proposal could be problematic. A parent whose child died because of an accident might be offended to be subjected to a drug test, he said. Sen. Julie Denton, a Republican from Louisville and a panel member, said that she thought it may be problematic to get such a bill through the legislature given Griffith's and others' concerns.

The panel decided Monday to begin collecting information from the 140 case files it is reviewing to determine how many times a drug test could have been used to help prosecute a case.

Teresa James, commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, also told the panel that social workers should have visited the family more. Child protection is part of the Department for Community Based Services.

The child's parents were in drug treatment and had a relapse shortly before the boy's death. Social workers knew of the relapse.

"We weren't moving fast enough," James said. She said that since the boy's death — the first in five years for the drug program — the program has made sure that social workers are making the required number of visits to a family.

But James said it was not known whether drug abuse caused the boy's death. The baby was sleeping with multiple people in a queen bed at the time of his death. Poverty — or lack of money to buy a crib — might have been more of a factor in the baby's death. But because the family was not visited as often as it should have been, it's difficult for social workers to know what should have been done differently, James said.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader