Politics & Government

State didn't do review of Nelson County toddler's 2009 death

FRANKFORT — After an extended legal battle with Kentucky's two largest newspapers, the state's child-protection agency began releasing extensive records on Friday about children who died as a result of abuse.

In response to a judge's order, the cabinet released more than 1,000 pages of documents detailing the state's involvement with five abused children who died in 2009.

In at least one of those cases, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services never did an internal review of the child's death despite having prior contact with the family. State law mandates a review in every abuse death or near-death when the cabinet "had prior involvement with the child or family." The reviews are supposed to examine the cabinet's actions to determine if there were any missteps and to identify needed improvements and training.

Cabinet officials maintained Friday night that no review was required in the death of 21-month-old Cole Frazier, who was shot and killed by his father, Timothy Frazier, in May 2009 in Nelson County. Timothy Frazier later shot and killed himself.

The cabinet, which oversees child protection, had received multiple reports of domestic violence between Cole's parents, including one 13 days before Cole's May 29, 2009 death. But the cabinet did not investigate the last claim because they did not consider it domestic violence — Cole's parents did not live together at the time, according to cabinet records.

Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman for the cabinet, said child-protection workers did not do an internal review of Cole's death because there was not an ongoing case at the time of his death and all previous allegations involved domestic violence among adults in the home.

"There were no allegations of abuse or neglect related to the child," Midkiff said.

However, according to a summary of some of the previous domestic violence incidents between Timothy Frazier and Candice Dempsey, Cole's mother, a November 2007 report showed that Cole was present during a fight between his parents.

"He took the bottle out of child's mouth and threw it, slammed mother head in couch," the summary said. That report was unsubstantiated by adult-protection workers due to lack of evidence.

A summary of an April 2008 allegation of domestic violence between Frazier and Dempsey said he "threatened me about taking my son, expressed concern for the life of my son and myself." Adult-protection workers made no finding in the case because they were unable to make contact with the victim.

Two other reports of domestic violence came in May 2009.

On May 15, Timothy Frazier filed a domestic violence petition against Dempsey and was granted temporary custody of Cole. Dempsey had asked police to check on her son three different times prior to his May 29 death, according to state records.

The other children whose records were released on Friday include:

 James Owen Utley, who was 3 years old when his father, Ralph Utley, shot him to death in Gallatin County in February 2009. Ralph Utley then killed himself.

 Kiara Smith, a 1-year-old from Grant County, who died of head injuries in January 2009 after her mother left her with caretaker Douglas Brandon Barnhill, who was later charged in her death.

 Kayden Stewart, 18 months old, whose stepfather, Alan Rolley, was charged with killing him in Muhlenberg County in March 2009. The boy was beaten to death.

 Chloe Senseman, a 2-month-old Boone County girl whose father, Benjamin Senseman, was convicted in her July 2009 death. The child had a broken arm, leg and ribs and a head injury, according to the file.

In three of the five cases, the cabinet had no documented previous contact with the family before the child's death.

In the death of James Owen Utley, child-protection workers had received a report in September 2007 of a domestic violence incident between James' parents, where James was present. The cabinet offered services to the family and the case was closed, according to records released Friday.

The next reference in the file is the murder of James and suicide of his father in March 2009. Following the deaths, officials conducted an internal review of the cabinet's actions and filed a three-page report.

Other reviews not done

Cole Frazier's death is not the first time the cabinet opted not to complete an internal review.

The cabinet never did an internal review in the death of Amy Dye, a 9-year-old Todd County girl who was beaten to death by her adoptive brother in February. The cabinet said it did not do an internal review because Dye's death was caused by a sibling, not a custodial parent. School officials had called multiple times to report suspicious injuries to Dye two years prior to her death.

The cabinet also did not complete an internal review of the death of 22-month-old Kayden Branham, who died after drinking drain cleaner used in the making of methamphetamine in May 2009. Both Kayden and his then 14-year-old mother had extensive previous contact with the cabinet and were under the cabinet's supervision at the time of his death.

That omission came to light after the Lexington Herald-Leader successfully sued the cabinet to get records about Kayden's death. After the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal in Louisville received those records, the newspapers asked for records of all children who died or nearly died from abuse in 2009 and 2010.

The newspapers sued again in January 2011 when the cabinet refused to release the documents. In that case, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled again that in instances involving child deaths and injuries, the public has an overriding interest in information that could shed light on how the cabinet performed its duties.

Earlier this month, Shepherd ordered the cabinet to begin releasing at least 1,000 pages of records a week on about 180 files involving child fatalities and injuries, starting Jan. 27.

The cabinet had proposed withholding a broad range of information when it released the records, citing privacy and legal concerns. Shepherd, however, said the agency could redact only limited information.

On Thursday, the cabinet sought an emergency order from the Court of Appeals so that it could release documents that contained more deletions than Shepherd's ruling allowed. Shortly before the deadline Friday, Chief Appeals Court Judge Jeff Taylor issued an order allowing the cabinet to redact the records on its terms.

However, Taylor said that stay will remain in effect only until a hearing before a three-judge appeals panel on Feb. 7.

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