More from the series
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.
An investigator at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services is suing the agency, alleging that her superiors wanted her to cover up the cabinet’s failure to protect a Berea girl from life-threatening child abuse in 2013 and 2014.
Bridget Frailley, a 20-year cabinet employee, said she refused to falsify her reports on how the cabinet’s child-protection office in Madison County erred by leaving the girl with her abusive father, Julio Valladares, and his abusive girlfriend, Linda Richmond, both of them now in prison.
Although Valladares wouldn’t cooperate with state social workers, even shutting his front door in their faces, they closed the girl’s case file and left her to languish in the home.
“It was a difficult case for me to work with because I just didn’t feel comfortable. But there wasn’t abuse,” one of the social workers, Robert Wayne Baldwin, later testified in court.
The girl was wheeled into Kentucky Children’s Hospital at the University of Kentucky in October 2014, three days before her ninth birthday. She was catatonic, terribly malnourished and covered in bruises and sores. Police determined that Valladares and Richmond had been methodically torturing her for months.
After the Herald-Leader reported the girl’s story in February, relying in part on Frailley’s reports, the cabinet rebuked Frailley, demoted her to front-line social worker and involuntarily transferred her from Frankfort to Louisville, according to her lawsuit, filed Thursday in Franklin Circuit Court.
Frailley’s supervisors faulted her for not including in her reports the allegation that the Madison County attorney’s office didn’t file a second petition in family court to reopen the case against Valladares and force him to cooperate, according to the suit. Her supervisors called this “critical information that could have dispelled cabinet blame for failing to protect this young girl from her father,” according to the suit.
Frailley’s review faulted the cabinet for not adequately pursuing the matter in family court.
“When (Frailley) reported that this was not only speculative but likely false information about the county attorney and would be the equivalent of falsifying documents, the meeting was concluded and (Frailley) was told that she was going to be given the option for a voluntary or involuntary transfer to a demoted position,” according to the suit.
The cabinet hoped to avoid embarrassing news coverage by “rewriting history,” said Shane Sidebottom, Frailley’s attorney.
“My client believes there was a lot of pressure for her to go back and change the findings that she had made,” Sidebottom said. “But she did not believe that the facts supported the changes they wanted.”
The cabinet does not comment on pending litigation, spokesman Doug Hogan said Friday.
Madison County Attorney Marc Robbins said Friday that he hadn’t seen the lawsuit and couldn’t comment on specific cases his office has handled involving juveniles. Speaking generally, Robbins said, “We take child abuse cases extremely seriously. But our actions are based on the facts as they are presented to us.”
Frailley was one of the cabinet employees responsible for conducting internal reviews after a child who has been referred to the cabinet because of abuse or neglect is nonetheless killed or nearly killed.
“She did what she was supposed to do,” Sidebottom said. “The purpose of these internal reviews is to protect the children of Kentucky by correcting the cabinet’s deficiencies. You get greater knowledge by learning from your mistakes. So I don’t know why they would want to be rewriting history to make themselves look better in hindsight.”
In her lawsuit, Frailley asks the cabinet for damages and legal fees and to be returned to her previous job in Frankfort.
When the Herald-Leader interviewed cabinet leaders in late January, they seemed to acknowledge errors in how the cabinet handled the Berea girl’s case.
“It was a horrendous situation. We agree 100 percent that it was a horrendous situation. In hindsight, we would have done things much, much differently,” Tim Feeley, the cabinet’s deputy secretary, said at the time.
“It was horrific,” Department for Community Based Services Commissioner Adria Johnson said in the same interview. “We own what’s ours. And I can tell you that the issues that were identified in this case that I feel we could have done better or that were deficient within our own system have been addressed and will continue to be addressed.”
Frailley wasn’t the only person to review how the cabinet handled the Berea girl’s case.
The details were extensively reviewed in December by an external review board in Frankfort, an independent panel of experts that examines suspicious child fatalities and near-fatalities from around the state. The board is given access to confidential documents, including medical and family court records.
As the panel’s staff analysts read aloud from the girl’s file, several panel members sitting around the table gasped or shook their heads.
“The case should never have been closed,” said Karen Bremenkamp, a forensic medical analyst assigned to the panel.
“It just feels like everything that could go wrong with this case did go wrong,” said Sherry Currens, a panel member and executive director of the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Usually what we’re dealing with here is, like, impaired caregivers. But this was just evil. I don’t see how it kept falling through.”