Watchdog

Review panel for child abuse deaths proposed

A bill that would create an independent panel to examine the deaths of children who were under the supervision of the state was filed Thursday by state Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville.

The measure, being pushed by Gov. Steve Beshear's administration, calls for the panel to determine whether a death or near-death event was preventable.

However, the proposal would strictly limit the public release of information about such deaths. All information provided to the proposed panel would be confidential and exempt from the Kentucky Open Records Act. Parts of meetings in which individual cases were discussed also would be closed to the public.

The bill comes two weeks after the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal filed a lawsuit in Franklin Circuit Court challenging emergency regulations put in place by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services that prevent the release of records related to children who die from abuse.

Under Burch's proposal, some information about a child — excluding the name and the names of the people in his household — would be made public within 48 hours after a fatality is known to be from abuse or neglect,

The information would include a summary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Service's investigative report, the gender of the child and month and year of birth and the date of the fatal or near-fatal abuse.

Summary information about conclusions reached by the panel would be available to the public. After the review, the panel would make recommendations for needed improvements.

The external panel would include a representative of the attorney general's office, a family court judge, lawmakers, a coroner, medical personnel with experience in treating child abuse, a law enforcement officer and a representative of an agency that works with families.

The cabinet has long refused to release files on children who died while being monitored by social workers. However, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd last year ordered the agency to release records on the May 2009 death of Kayden Branham, a 20-month-old from Wayne County, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Herald-Leader and joined by The Courier-Journal.

Kayden died after drinking drain cleaner that allegedly had been used to make methamphetamine.

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