Politics & Government

Republican senators block bill to keep abused children enrolled in school

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Abandoned in Hell

The majority of Kentucky children who die or nearly die in abuse and neglect cases had previous contact with social workers, five years after the state committed itself to being a better protector.

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The Republican Senate majority won’t hear a bill that would require abused or neglected children to remain enrolled in school because it doesn’t wish to get involved in the sensitive subject of home-schooling, a key senator said Wednesday.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said his committee won’t give a hearing to Senate Bill 181. Under the bill, parents who have a substantiated instance of child abuse or neglect on their record would not be allowed to remove their children from public school without court approval.

“There is some resistance on it,” Westerfield said. “I’ve spoken to people, and I don’t think it has the votes to get out. Members of the Senate have concerns about getting into home-schooling.”

In a fiery 13-minute speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, the bill’s sponsor, Senate Democratic Leader Ray Jones of Pikeville, criticized GOP senators for calling themselves “pro life” while refusing to hear a proposal that could protect children from being isolated at home, without witnesses, and fatally abused.

Jones filed his bill after reading in the Herald-Leader last month about an 8-year-old Berea girl who was tortured nearly to death by her father and his girlfriend. The father withdrew the girl from her elementary school, falsely claiming that he would home-school her, after school employees reported the girl’s injuries to social workers.

“When you no longer have principals and teachers and school nurses and others involved in the child’s life, this kind of abuse can easily be shielded,” Jones said. “You say that you’re a pro life chamber, that you’re a pro life party, and yet even a simple bill to protect the lives of innocent children like this 8-year-old little girl can’t get a hearing.”

Jones said that if the Republican majority objects to the bill because he’s a Democrat, he is willing to withdraw it and let a GOP senator file identical language as an amendment to a pending bill, so Republicans could claim the credit.

“I want to tell you something,” Jones continued. “I’m gonna be here for three more years. And I can tell you, there will be another incident to take place like this one. There will be more children to suffer this kind of abuse. There will be more children to die from this kind of abuse. And I can assure you that when it happens and when it is reported, I am going to stand up and I am going to remind the members of the majority party about this bill.”

The number of child abuse and neglect reports that are substantiated in Kentucky has climbed from 9,934 in 2012 to 15,378 in 2016.

In reply, Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, R-Greensburg, said he and some colleagues have questions about how the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services substantiates abuse and neglect. A finding of child abuse by cabinet employees is not the same thing as a criminal conviction for abuse in court, Givens said in his speech.

“This is not a judicial finding, this is a substantiation of neglect or abuse,” Givens said. Senators are “trying to protect children while, at the same time, trying to protect rights of people who are accused and not found by the judicial branch to be guilty.”

“I wish we could rid this world of evil. I wish we could rid this society of evil. I even wish we could just rid our commonwealth of evil,” Givens said. “But there is no defense for it. And also, Mr. President, I don’t think there’s any amount of government that can stop it, either.”

Later, Senate President Robert Stivers gave his own speech in which he said the Berea child abuse story the Herald-Leader reported was “a complex issue” that has spawned an internal investigation at the cabinet, which failed to promptly remove the girl despite substantiated abuse. However, at least one of the cabinet employees who might be to blame for the girl’s plight has protection under the merit system, which would make it difficult to fire him, Stivers said.

“There’s a lot more to that story than the school system,” said Stivers, R-Manchester. “There is an individual — in fact, there is a whole cabinet that is being looked into because of this story. So it’s not just as simple as looking at a school system.”

A cabinet spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment late Wednesday.

Stivers also criticized the Herald-Leader for reporting that the bill has been blocked and demanded a retraction. Herald-Leader Editor Peter Baniak said the story accurately reports the status of the bill and quotes the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee explaining why it isn’t getting a vote. “The story is complete and accurate,” Baniak said.

Although home-schooling is loosely regulated and tracked in Kentucky, based on federal reporting requirements, the state Department of Education estimated that about 20,400 Kentucky children were home-schooled during the 2015-16 academic year.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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