Politics & Government

Kentucky panel says it needs full access to child-abuse files; documents would remain secret

Jon Fleischaker is advocating for open meetings of the review panel.
Jon Fleischaker is advocating for open meetings of the review panel.

FRANKFORT — An independent panel charged with reviewing case files of abused or neglected children who were killed or critically injured agreed Monday that it needs complete case files, which it would review behind closed doors.

Gov. Steve Beshear appointed the 17-member panel chaired by retired Franklin Circuit Judge Roger Crittenden in July to review the case files and make recommendations on how to improve child-abuse investigations in Kentucky.

The panel has seen only heavily redacted files provided by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees child-abuse cases. The names of all adults have been removed from the files.

Also, some of the files don't include details of police investigations, school records or documents regarding mental health and certain other health conditions, which the cabinet does not always have and cannot provide.

Panelists said Monday they needed complete access to those files, which they would discuss behind closed doors. The records would not be subject to the Kentucky Open Records Act, they said.

A group of child advocates is working on proposed legislation that would allow the panel to have full access to the files, said Joel Griffith of Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky. The group hopes to show the panel a draft of the proposal within days and have a lawmaker file the bill next week.

Jon Fleischaker, a lawyer who represents the Kentucky Press Association, said it was likely the news media would fight the legislation if it tries to close the panel's meetings and exempt the group's documents from public disclosure.

"The want to put a closed system on top of a closed system," Fleischaker said. "And then they want the public to trust them."

Griffith said the goal of child advocates is to review as much information as possible to make better and more complete recommendations. The panel could discuss some of that information in public if names are not used, Griffith said.

The group is supposed to make its final recommendations for improvements to Beshear, the state Supreme Court and the legislature by December. That report would be public, Griffith said.

Beshear appointed the independent panel after the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal successfully sued the state to open records of children who have been killed or nearly killed as a result of abuse and neglect.

The newspapers and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services are engaged in an ongoing legal battle over what information may be removed from those case files. That case is pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court.

On Monday, panel members said it was impossible for many of them to determine what happened in various cases because the redactions make it difficult to follow the time line of events. But even with the redactions, panelists said the case files already have highlighted weaknesses.

Robert Walker, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky School of Social Work, said he was surprised that social workers perform little formalized risk assessment of parents and other adults. He said that there was little data to back up conclusions made by social workers and that there appeared to be a lack of protocol regarding investigations.

Walker also said national statistics appeared to suggest that Kentucky child-protection workers have among the lowest caseloads in the country.

Community Based Services Commissioner Teresa James, who oversees child protection, said child-protection workers are trying to improve their assessment tools and tighten investigative protocols.

Although it might appear on paper that Kentucky is well-staffed, James said turnover and worker inexperience are huge problems. In one nine-month period last year, the state lost 350 social workers and hired 350 new social workers, she said.

"We are trying to build up our clinical capacity," James said.

Kentucky State Police detective Kevin Calhoon said he noticed that police were sometimes called too late, making a thorough investigation difficult.

"In this particular case it looked like it was three, four or five days before anyone got into the house," Calhoon said.

When a child is sexually abused there is a multidisciplinary team — social workers, police and prosecutors — that helps sync law enforcement and child protection, but that doesn't happen in physical abuse or neglect cases, said Hardin County Attorney Jenny Oldham.

Oldham said the panel also must remember that it has been asked to help improve the entire child-protection system, not just the state's role.

"As a society, we have laid this problem at the foot of the cabinet," Oldham said. "I think it's important that we continue to blame the perpetrators of abuse and not the cabinet ... We have given them an impossible task, but we haven't gotten serious about giving them the tools."

The panel will meet again in late March.

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