Politics & Government

After 3-day hearing, judge wants more details about deletions to child abuse files

FRANKFORT — After more than three days of testimony, a Franklin Circuit Court judge said Wednesday that state lawyers still need to explain why they deleted key information from case files of abused kids who died or were critically injured.

Judge Phillip Shepherd told lawyers with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services that he expected more detailed explanations of why the cabinet decided to remove information from more than 140 social worker case files before releasing them publicly.

Among other things, the cabinet redacted the names of parents or caregivers who were charged in a child's death and information from Kentucky State Police news releases.

The names of individuals charged with a crime are public record, Shepherd said. Removing them from the case files "could be interpreted as an effort to obstruct public access to information that should be available," he said.

Lawyers for the cabinet and the state's two largest newspapers — the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville — must now submit briefs to Shepherd explaining why they believe certain information in the case files should be included or removed. Shepherd said he will then make a final ruling on what information can be released to the public.

The three-day hearing is the latest in an ongoing legal battle between the state and the newspapers. Shepherd has previously ruled in two separate cases that the public has an overriding interest in seeing the case files of children killed or nearly killed as a result of abuse or neglect.

Shepherd had also ruled that only limited information could be removed from the files, including the names of children who have been seriously injured but not killed, the names of minor siblings and other medical information. However, the cabinet redacted far more information than Shepherd instructed.

Information that was removed included names of nearly every adult interviewed in the cabinet's investigation, addresses of the cabinet's own offices, and all previous reports of abuse of neglect that were not substantiated by social workers.

Christina Heavrin, general counsel for the cabinet, said the cabinet employed several people to redact information from the case files. There may not have been consistency in those redactions because so many different people did them, she said.

She also acknowledged to Shepherd that the cabinet's protocol for redacting information was not developed in consultation with the social workers and other staff who testified about the case files on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Child-protection workers who testified at the hearing said they were concerned that releasing the names of perpetrators to the public would harm other children in the family. They also told Shepherd that much of social work is based on confidentiality.

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