FRANKFORT — An independent panel of experts would examine the deaths of abused and neglected children in Kentucky under a proposal approved unanimously Thursday by a House committee.
The independent child-fatality review panel would make recommendations to the state about how to improve its child-protection system, but the group's meetings would be closed to the public, and its documents would remain secret.
House Bill 200 would require the panel to publish an annual report to the legislature that did not contain identifying information about individual cases.
Jon Fleischaker, a lawyer for the Kentucky Press Association, objected to the secrecy of the panel, saying there was no accountability to the public.
"We are all for a statewide panel," Fleischaker told the House and Health Welfare Committee, "but the public needs to be able to see what the recommendations are."
Moreover, the state has not always provided complete information after a child dies, he said. It's important to know what information the panel had before it made its recommendations.
In addition, House Bill 200 would define what information the Cabinet for Health and Family Services must release to the public when abused children who have had previous contact with the cabinet die or are severely injured. The Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville have successfully sued the cabinet seeking such documents under the state Open Records Act.
The Cabinet for Health and Family Services oversees child protection in Kentucky.
The proposed legislation would allow the cabinet to keep secret the names of children who suffered serious, non-fatal injuries and information that would identify siblings in the home.
Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, said the issue would be studied further by a proposed task force that would look at revamping the state's juvenile criminal code. Westrom said the issue needed to be vetted fully by lawmakers and should be addressed by the House Judiciary Committee.
Fleischaker said he did not oppose the juvenile justice task force studying the issue. The ongoing litigation between the newspapers and the cabinet might take several years to finalize, he said.
A Franklin Circuit Court judge has ruled twice that the cabinet must turn over its files about children who have died or nearly died from abuse and neglect. The cabinet has appealed the latest decision, saying it wants to redact broad categories of information from the files, including the names of people who report abuse and the names of adults in the home who were not charged with abuse and neglect.
The external panel will add another layer of accountability to the child-protection system, which has come under criticism recently. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services is required to do an internal review of all deaths or near-deaths of abused children whose families had previous contact with the cabinet. Those reviews are supposed to point out previous missteps and ways to improve the system.
A Herald-Leader review of 85 internal reviews of children who were killed or nearly killed in 2009 and 2010 showed a lack of consistency in how those reviews — conducted by cabinet staff — were completed.
Some reviews were lengthy and thorough, including an analysis of what social workers could do differently to prevent similar deaths. But some reviews consisted of one page that didn't say whether the child died.
The Herald-Leader also has found that in some cases, the cabinet never completed the internal review as required by law.
The cabinet is also required to provide a summary of the internal reviews to the legislature by Sept. 1 of each year. For the past two years, those reports were not given to the legislature until December. The 2011 report did not include summaries of the internal reviews, only some statistical information about children who died of abuse.
Westrom said Thursday that she hoped to amend the bill before a vote on the House floor to create an independent office — possibly through the governor's office — that would investigate improprieties involving child protection and, possibly, vulnerable adults.
The cabinet, which oversees child and adult protection, has an Office of Inspector General that can investigate possible wrongdoing within the cabinet, but there has been no independent investigation of child protection in some time, Westrom said.
The Office of Inspector General, which has seen significant budget cuts in recent years, also inspects child care facilities, hospitals and nursing homes.
HB 200 also would change the definitions of child abuse or neglect to include failing to protect a child from abuse by siblings, which would close a hole in current child protection laws.
Cabinet officials told the House Health and Welfare Committee that they favored HB 200. It will now go to the full House for a vote.
"This is a tremendously important bill," said Eric Friedlander, the interim secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. "We are fully in support of this bill."
Thursday was Friedlander's first day as interim secretary. Friedlander, a longtime cabinet employee and former deputy secretary, was named to the interim post when Janie Miller announced her resignation from the cabinet's top job earlier this year.
"We want to work with you," Friedlander told the committee.