Politics & Government

Bill calls for panel to review child deaths, but work would be secret

FRANKFORT — All deaths and near-deaths of children who have been abused would be reviewed by an 11-member panel, and information about children who died as a result of abuse or neglect would be public, under a proposal before the legislature.

House Bill 200, filed Wednesday, would create an external panel that would include the attorney general, doctors, prosecutors and judges.

After the review, the panel would develop recommendations to address systemic issues and child-welfare practices. Any problems the panel identified in the actions of state and local agencies would be referred to authorities for review.

However, the panel's review would be kept secret, as would the records it analyzed.

But the bill further clarifies the state statute to say that state records involving children who have been killed or nearly killed as a result of abuse and neglect can be released to the public by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees child protection.

The Herald-Leader and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal have sued the state twice during the past two years to get access to case files of children who have died as a result of abuse and neglect. A Franklin Circuit Court judge has ruled twice that child-protection records are public in the case of a death or near-death.

Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, one of the bill's sponsors, said many legislators are frustrated with the cabinet and think an external review panel would add a level of accountability to a cabinet that is mostly shrouded in secrecy.

"In government, you have to have checks and balances," Westrom said. "If we don't have these checks and balances, how do we know if we are protecting our children?"

A similar bill was filed last year. It was approved by a House committee but did not make it to the House floor for a vote because of several amendments that were added to the bill at the last minute.

The media have complained that the bill went too far by keeping most of the meetings of the external panel secret and its records exempt from the state's Open Records Act.

But Westrom said the panel could not do a thorough investigation into what went wrong unless there was some promise of privacy.

"It's just one step in the direction of transparency," Wes trom said.

The bill also says that the cabinet does not have to release the names of people who report abuse and neglect or the names of those who have nearly died as a result of abuse.

Cabinet officials said late Tuesday that they support the measure and are working with the sponsors to further clarify language in the bill.

"The cabinet supports the concepts included in the bill, which reflect language that the cabinet developed in collaboration with Rep. (Tom) Burch during the last legislative session," said Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman for the cabinet. "In fact, the cabinet is working with Rep. Burch and Rep. Westrom to update HB 200 to reflect the cabinet's new policy on providing information related to child fatalities."

Burch is a Louisville Democrat.

Westrom, who is a social worker, also plans to file a bill this session that would create pilot programs to open juvenile courts, which are now closed. Similar bills have been filed in the past but have not been passed.

Westrom said she also would file a bill — possibly as soon as this week — that would clarify child abuse statutes to make it clear that sibling-on-sibling abuse is considered child abuse. That was an issue in the case of Amy Dye, 9, of Todd County who was beaten to death by her adopted brother in February. According to Dye's case file, which was released by a judge, the cabinet had received reports of abuse, but social workers did not consider it abuse because the abuse was inflicted by a sibling.

Westrom said Dye's case and other news stories about child-abuse deaths and near-deaths have galvanized support for more transparency at the cabinet.

"I think we're going to get a great deal of support," she said.