Lawmakers hope to hold hearing about Kentucky child-death records

State Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville
State Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville

FRANKFORT — Two key lawmakers say they hope to hold a hearing in December about the state's handling of records regarding deaths and near deaths of kids in Kentucky's child-welfare system.

State Rep. Tom Burch and Sen. Julie Denton on Wednesday said they want to hold hearings on whether the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees child welfare, is being transparent in the way it reports deaths and near deaths of children under its supervision.

Burch, D-Louisville, and Denton, R-Louisville, are co-chairs of the Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare. Denton said she and Burch are still waiting for approval from legislative leaders to hold a meeting of the committee in December. "We want full transparency," Burch said on Wednesday.

The issue came to the forefront after a recent Franklin Circuit Court decision regarding the death of a 9-year-old girl in Todd County.

Amythz Dye — who was adopted — was beaten to death by her adoptive brother in February. The cabinet had received several prior reports of abuse of the girl but never removed the child or offered any services because the abuse was caused by a sibling, not a custodial parent, according to records in the case.

The opinion ordered the state to release its documents regarding the girl to the weekly Todd County Standard newspaper, which had sued to get the records. The cabinet first failed to respond to the newspaper's request, then denied it had any records, which wasn't true, the opinion said.

Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phil Shepherd ruled that the cabinet violated the state's Open Records Act by not turning over the records and misinterpreted the state's statutes regarding the definition of child abuse.

The cabinet also failed to notify police of the abuse reports, as required, and did not do a required internal review of her death, Shepherd said.

The Todd County case is the latest in a string of legal rulings ordering the release of cabinet records about children who died or nearly died from abuse and neglect while under state supervision. The Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville also have sued the cabinet to get such records.

Shepherd has twice ruled in favor of the two newspapers over the past two years, including in a strongly-worded opinion issued earlier this month.

Burch said it's likely that legislation will be introduced again when the General Assembly convenes in January to further clarify that child-death records should be released to the public. Similar legislation was introduced last year but died in the House.

Burch said there is a lot of trepidation about opening records, but the recent cases show that there are problems in the state's child protection system. "How many more tragedies are we going to have?" Burch asked. "If we keep the door closed we are not going to know what the problems are."

Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, who oversees the state's Medicaid budget, said it's likely that the House and Senate will have to examine the child abuse statutes to see if changes are needed to ensure that children are being protected and that the cabinet is following the legislature's intent.

The cabinet said it did not do a fatality review on the death of Amythz Dye because it never had custody or supervision of her.

In his ruling, Shepherd said Kentucky law requires the cabinet to do a fatality review to determine what went wrong if the cabinet had any previous contact with the family. The cabinet had made inquiries about abuse reports before her death.

Denton said Wednesday that the secrecy surrounding child-death records is indicative of larger problems at the cabinet. "We need more transparency and more accountability," Denton said of the agency, which oversees a range of programs, including services for the brain injured, disabled and children with special needs. It also administers Medicaid and food assistance programs.

One of the state's leading advocates for children said the legislature needs to do more than just hold hearings. It's time to overhaul the child protection system, said Terry Brooks, the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a non-profit that advocates for children.

"These are all signs that our child welfare system is not working," Brooks said.

He said lawmakers should do the same thing they did with the state's prison system last year. With the help of the Pew Center, a task force looked at ways to cut the state's prison population and reduce recidivism. The legislature overwhelmingly passed a measure last year that, among other things, would divert more non-violent offenders to drug treatment programs instead of prison.

"How many more tragedies are we going to see?" Brooks asked. "There comes a time in every system — whether it's education, it's the prison system, higher education — that you have to reboot."

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