Politics & Government

Panel reviewing Kentucky deaths from child abuse won't get full case files

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

FRANKFORT — An independent panel that convened Tuesday for the first time to review deaths and serious injuries of abused and neglected children won't have access to the state's full case files, prompting concern among some of its members.

"We can't start with one hand tied behind our back," said state Sen. Julie Denton, a member of the panel. "If we can't get full reports or documents, you don't know the whole story. How do we know that those documents aren't critical to knowing how the system broke down?"

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees child protection, said it will redact information from the files it provides the 17-member group because its meetings are open to the public.

The cabinet and the state's two largest newspapers have fought in court for two years over access to case files of abused children who died or nearly died. A Franklin Circuit Court judge has ruled those files should be released to the public, but the cabinet and the newspapers continue to disagree about how much information in the files should be kept from public view.

The panel decided to begin by reviewing the files of 55 abused children who died or nearly died in Kentucky during the past year, but the group spent much of its first meeting discussing what information it needs to complete the task and when that information will be available.

Gov. Steve Beshear created the Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel in July, following months of scrutiny by the Lexington Herald-Leader and other media of how the state handles child abuse cases.

Based on its findings, the panel is expected to make recommendations on how the state can better protect vulnerable children. The group, which is supposed to meet quarterly, includes doctors, prosecutors, legislators, social workers, child advocates and a police officer.

Denton, R-Louisville, expressed dismay that the cabinet did not have the 55 cases available for the panel to begin reviewing on Tuesday.

"I am a little disappointed that the cabinet knew that we were meeting today and didn't have everything necessary for the panel. ... This isn't a surprise that we were going to ask for these," Denton said.

Teresa James, commissioner of the state Department for Community Based Services, said the agency could provide eight case files to the panel by the end of the week. She said it will take more time for the cabinet to gather the remaining 43 case files, which are located in offices throughout the state.

Cabinet spokeswoman Jill Midkiff later said the agency was waiting for direction from the panel regarding what time frame it wanted to review before pulling and copying the case files, which are voluminous.

Kentucky State Police Detective Kevin Calhoon, a member of the panel, asked if police reports and information collected by law enforcement would be included in the information the panel was going to review. But cabinet staff said Tuesday that in many cases, that information is not included in a social worker's case file.

"We need to look at all aspects of the investigation," Calhoon said, not just the cabinet's role.

Calhoon said social workers and police look at cases from two different perspectives. Social workers mostly consider the safety of other children in the home while law enforcement investigates who to charge with a crime. That's a key difference and systematic shortfall in the child protection system, Calhoon said.

Hardin County Family Court Judge Brent Hall questioned if the panel should have more authority.

"Another thing to consider ... Tennessee's fatality review has subpoena powers to get information from the school and from medical facilities," Hall said.

Denton said the cabinet would likely fight giving the panel more legal authority, noting that it has spent tens of thousands of dollars on lawyer fees and fines in its legal battle with the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal.

However, James said the cabinet is not necessarily opposed to the panel having more information.

Retired Circuit Court Judge Roger Crittenden, chairman of the panel, suggested that the cabinet provide the panel with a list of information that will not be included in the case files, such as police reports and redacted information. At its next meeting in January, the panel can discuss what additional information it may need, he said.

Because the group was created by executive order, the legislature will need to approve a bill next year permanently establishing the panel. Such legislation cleared the Democratic-led House earlier in 2012 but failed to pass the Republican-led Senate.

Denton said she believes legislation establishing the panel has a better chance of passing the Senate in the upcoming session, which begins in January.

"The people who did not support it are no longer here," Denton said.

Former Senate President David Williams resigned from his senate seat this fall to accept a judicial appointment.

"I think we'll see a lot more bills being passed this session," Denton said.

Joel Griffith, of Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, said he and about 30 other child advocates have drafted proposed legislation regarding the review panel for the upcoming legislative session. The panel will discuss the proposed legislation — including what powers the panel should have and what documents it should be able to access — at its next meeting on Jan. 28.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader