FRANKFORT — A bill allowing closer scrutiny of child abuse deaths by an independent panel cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday despite objections from some that too much of the group's work would be done in secret.
House Bill 290 would permanently establish an external review panel of 20 members to scrutinize deaths and critical injuries of abused and neglected children and make recommendations on how Kentucky's child-protection system should be improved.
The bill would allow the panel to close portions of its meetings and withhold its records from the public, a sticking point with some lawmakers and several Kentucky media outlets.
The House Health and Welfare Committee voted 8 to 5 to send HB 290 to the full House. Two members did not vote.
The Kentucky Press Association, of which the Herald-Leader is a member, strongly objected to the bill, saying it exempted from public disclosure records that are already available to the public.
"We can get the records that this panel makes secret," said Ashley Pack, a lawyer for the Kentucky Press Association.
Members of the external review panel, which Gov. Steve Beshear created on a temporary basis in July, told the legislative committee that they need access to complete, unredacted records, which the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services has refused to provide the review panel and the media.
Members of the panel also said they need the ability to discuss cases in secret so members can speak freely as they determine fault.
The review board, which has met twice since July, has expressed frustration that the heavily redacted case files they have been provided are difficult to follow. Panel members also said they need additional information, such as police and mental health records, which the cabinet does not always collect and which is sometimes exempt from disclosure under the state's Open Records Act.
"This panel is absolutely critical," said Dr. Melissa Currie, a panel member and one of only two doctors in Kentucky who specializes in child abuse cases. "It's one of the most powerful tools that we have to look at these cases critically."
"The people on the panel have to be able to speak freely," Currie said. "They have to be able to admit when mistakes are made."
Pack said the law goes too far, making it almost impossible for anyone to determine whether the group is doing its job thoroughly. More information must be readily available "so the public can evaluate how the review panel is doing," Pack said.
Kentucky's two largest newspapers and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services have been in a legal battle for more than three years over which records can be released when a child is killed or nearly killed as a result of abuse or neglect.
A judge has sided with the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville twice and ordered the records released. The newspapers and the cabinet continue to disagree over what information can be removed from the files, an issue that is pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court.
State Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, a former inspector general for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, released several scathing reports about the state's child-protection system during his tenure.
"We have lost years and years because of the inability of the cabinet to embrace transparency," said Benvenuti, who voted for the bill but said it needs more changes. "We can no longer put children at risk because we don't want to be criticized."
Democratic Rep. Tom Burch of Louisville, the sponsor of HB 290, said the panel will bring more transparency in the child-protection system. If there are problems with the bill, it can be tweaked in 2014, he said.
"This may be the best that we can get right now," Burch said.
Rep. Bob DeWeese, R-Louisville, voted against HB 290, saying that information obtained by the media through the Open Records Act allowed the committee to determine what happened in key child abuse deaths.
"I still think it is protecting adults more than kids," DeWeese said of HB 290.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he, too, has concerns that HB 290 keeps too much information secret.
"I believe those records should be open," Stumbo said. "I believe the only reason that they should remain sealed is if there is a criminal investigation. I personally believe that the attorney general's office should review those cases."
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said that the Senate Republican caucus has not discussed the legislation and that he could not say how it might fare in the upper chamber.