Politics & Government

Senator calls for cabinet chief to resign over child-abuse records, other issues

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

FRANKFORT — A key lawmaker called for the resignation of Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Janie Miller on Monday, saying the agency has misled legislators regarding child abuse records and other key issues.

Republican Sen. Julie Denton of Louisville, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said Miller's cabinet has not provided lawmakers with accurate information about children who die or nearly die from neglect and abuse.

"This cabinet treats everyone as an adversary," Denton said during Monday's meeting. "I'm tired of lies. I'm tired of deception. I'm tired of the tap-dance routine. I'm tired of the shroud of secrecy. We should be partners, not adversaries."

Miller did not attend the meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare.

Other lawmakers and Gov. Steve Beshear voiced support for Miller, who has led the cabinet for four years and oversaw the state's switch to Medicaid managed care earlier this year.

Beshear said Miller has his "full confidence."

"She continues to work to improve the child protection system while meeting the legal standards provided by federal and state government," Beshear said.

Miller said in a written statement that she was disappointed that Denton "resorted to a personal attack rather than deal with these very difficult issues."

Much of Monday's meeting focused on the cabinet's handling of the beating death of 9-year-old Amy Dye, who was killed by her adoptive brother in February. Officials at Dye's school had reported multiple cases of possible abuse of Dye in 2007, according to child-protection records that were recently ordered released by a judge.

Amy's death was not included in the cabinet's annual report of all children who died or nearly died from abuse and neglect after child-protection workers had contact with the family. Cabinet officials have said Amy's death was not included in the report because its regulations say it can investigate abuse only by a parent or caregiver, not by a sibling.

Some lawmakers said the cabinet should have told the General Assembly long ago that sibling-on-sibling abuse was not being investigated.

Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, called the situation a "gaping hole" in the state's child protection system.

"That statute should have been dealt with years and years ago," Westrom said.

Lawmakers also expressed frustration because the cabinet has missed by several months a Sept. 1 deadline to deliver its report about child abuse fatalities in each of the last two years.

Department for Community Based Services Commissioner Pat Wilson told lawmakers the report was late again this year because she asked that it be rewritten to include more useful information.

Wilson said lawmakers might also need to push the deadline back, because it covers the fiscal year that ends June 30. In some cases, the investigations involving child abuse deaths have not been completed by Sept. 1.

Wilson also told the committee that child-protection workers did not fail in the case of Amy Dye.

Social workers did interview people at Amy's school about the reports of abuse in 2007, Wilson said. She said that there was a span of more than three years between the last report of alleged abuse and Amy's death in February 2011.

"It was not an abuse and neglect situation," Wilson said.

One of Amy's brothers, Garrett Dye, has been sentenced to 50 years in prison in her beating death. The previous reports of suspected abuse involved a different brother, Wilson said.

But officials with Amy Dye's school district told the committee that there were no reports of abuse and neglect involving Amy during much of that period because the family had sent Amy to live with other relatives in another state.

The school did not know that Amy had been sent out of state because the cabinet rarely communicates with the school district, said Michael Kenner, superintendent of Todd County Schools.

"We thought they had removed her from the home," said Camille Dillingham, principal of South Todd Elementary School, where Amy attended. "We don't even know if she was in school (during the time she was gone)."

Internal cabinet records released after Amy's death include a letter from the school nurse that lists six reports from school officials about suspected abuse or suspicious injuries to Amy. However, only three of the reports are contained in the cabinet's file on Amy.

Kenner said the school system frequently reports cases of abuse and neglect to the cabinet but does not receive any information about what happened to those reports.

He said the school system is not asking for confidential information. It just wants to know that the children are safe.

Wilson told legislators that she thought there was "room for better communication" between schools and social services.

"I can't say what that would look like," Wilson said.

Wilson announced earlier this month that she was leaving the position. Her last day was Monday.

Wilson's resignation came shortly after Beshear ordered the cabinet to turn over internal documents regarding children who have been killed or nearly killed as a result of abuse and neglect.

The state's two largest newspapers — the Lexington Herald-Leader and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal sued the cabinet to get the records. Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd has ruled twice over the past two years that child protection records are private with one exception — the death or near-death of a child.

Last week, the cabinet released 86 internal reviews of the cabinet's handling of cases involving the near-death or death of a child in 2009 and 2010. However, the documents were heavily redacted. In some cases, even the names of children who were killed had been removed from the file.

Shepherd is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday to determine what information the cabinet can remove from the documents.

Wilson told legislators on Wednesday that the cabinet believes in transparency but has concerns that releasing some information, such as the names of those who report suspected abuse, could hamper child-abuse investigations.

Wilson said social workers frequently tell reporting sources that the information will be kept confidential.

"I think what you will see is that it will have a chilling effect on the number of reports," Wilson said.

If that happens, it's possible the number of children killed from abuse and neglect could increase, she said.

Democratic Rep. Tom Burch of Louisville, chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, said he will hold additional hearings about the state's child protection system when the legislature convenes in January.

Also Monday, the cabinet named Teresa James acting commissioner for the Department of Community Based Services. James has been deputy commissioner since 2008.

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