FRANKFORT — The House approved a bill Tuesday that would create an independent office to investigate Kentucky's child-protection system and an external review panel to investigate deaths and near-deaths of abused or neglected children.
The Democratic-controlled chamber voted 96-0 with no debate in approving House Bill 200. It now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.
The bill would create a panel of experts from outside the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to examine how the state handled cases in which abused children died or were severely injured. The panel's meetings would be secret, and its work would not be public. The panel would have to report general findings, which could not identify the victims, on a Web site and to the legislature.
The panel would make recommendations on possible improvements to the state's child-protection system, adding another layer of oversight and accountability.
The bill also would create an independent office to investigate problems in child-protection, said Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, the sponsor of HB 200.
The Cabinet for Health and Family Services already has an Office of Inspector General, but the inspector general may investigate another branch of the cabinet only with the permission of the secretary of the cabinet. The office inspects child care centers, hospitals and nursing homes.
The inspector general has conducted only one investigation of child protection in recent history, Westrom said. That investigation, in 2006, showed widespread problems with child protection in Hardin County.
Westrom said repeated problems in the state's child-protection system and the well-publicized death of Amy Dye prompted HB 200.
"There was a loud cry from here in our General Assembly. ... It was time for us to do something because there was such a lack of transparency," Westrom said Tuesday.
The Todd County Standard, a weekly newspaper in Western Kentucky, successfully sued the cabinet to obtain records of the state's involvement in the life of Amy Dye, a Todd County girl who was killed by her adopted brother in February 2011.
Todd County school officials had called the cabinet several times in the years before Amy's death with concerns about bruises and injuries that allegedly were caused by Amy's brothers. The cabinet did not investigate, saying sibling abuse was not covered by the state's child-abuse statutes.
HB 200 corrects that problem, Westrom said.
The state's two largest newspapers, the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville, also successfully sued the cabinet under the state's Open Records Act to get records of children who had previous contact with the cabinet and were later killed or severely injured as a result of abuse and neglect. The cabinet is appealing the decision.
Westrom said Tuesday that funding to establish an independent office for the investigation of child-protection issues has not been identified. She said she was hopeful that the House and Senate could work together to find the money.
The House already has approved a $19.5 billion two-year budget. The Senate is expected to begin work on the budget in the next two weeks.
The cabinet originally had estimated it would cost $1.2 million to start the office, but Westrom said that amount is way too high. Part of that estimate included more than $700,000 for a toll-free phone number. The bill does not call for a toll-free number, Westrom said.
The independent inspector would be appointed by the governor, who would receive names from a nominating commission, she said.
Without an independent monitor in place, Westrom said she fears that recommendations of the external panel examining child-abuse deaths would not be addressed.
"Without this fourth branch, ... these recommendations are just words," Westrom said.