Politics & Government

Panel asks for $420,000 to review, improve state's child protection system

FRANKFORT — A panel tasked with reviewing child deaths and near deaths from abuse will ask the legislature for $420,000 for staff and other overhead costs to help it review and make recommendations on how to improve the state's child protection system.

The Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review panel will ask Gov. Steve Beshear to include the $420,000 in his budget for the next two fiscal years. Beshear typically unveils his budget proposal in late January. The legislature will have final say on whether it will fund the measure.

Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review chairman Roger Crittenden told the panel during its Monday meeting that the $420,000 would be used for at least one staff member and other staff, such as a lawyer. "Everything that we have asked for, we can justify," he said.

The panel has been meeting for a year but has struggled with how to efficiently review more than 70 case files of children who have died or nearly died as a result of abuse and neglect. In addition to dealing with the volume of files, the panel has struggled to develop a system to analyze the information, capture data and make recommendations to improve the system.

Originally created by Beshear by executive order in July 2012 and later approved by the legislature, the panel consists of social workers, child advocates, doctors, police, prosecutors and addiction and mental health specialists. But the panel has no designated funding. The Justice and Public Safety Cabinet provides one staff member, but only 25 percent of that person's time is spent on the panel's business. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which provides the files reviewed by the panel, also offers staff assistance.

An expert in child fatality reviews told the panel during its September meeting that it needed staff to help it coordinate reviews, track down additional information from other agencies and develop statistical data to back up its recommendations.

Teri Covington, director of the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths, told the panel a similar group in Michigan struggled to configure a review system that worked. When the Michigan panel started more than a decade ago, it would routinely come up with 100 recommendations that were largely ignored. The Michigan panel changed tacks after hearing feedback from state agencies that the recommendations were largely useless.

Covington told the group to make no more than 20 recommendations a year, give specific examples from individual abuse cases to back up those recommendations, and provide clear direction about which agency should implement each change in policy.

The panel agreed Monday that its first annual report, due Dec. 1, would focus on recommendations for improving the panel going forward so it could provide solid direction in future years. The final report with some of those recommendations — including recommendations on how to staff the panel — will be approved at the panel's Dec. 2 meeting. Dec. 1 is a Sunday.

For example, the panel decided Monday that for every case file it should request the police file, the court records, medical records, and coroner and medical examiner reports. The panel receives only social worker case files. Those files sometimes have reports from other agencies, but typically do not.

The panel does not have subpoena power. Crittenden told the panel it was unlikely the legislature would grant that type of power, because it is has been reticent to give other government bodies similar subpoena powers. But he said that if there are problems with getting documents, the panel could report that to the Senate or House Health and Welfare Committees, which could bring those agency officials before a legislative panel.

"That may be more effective than a subpoena," Crittenden said.

Part of the budget recommendation for $420,000 includes funding for a lawyer. These types of questions, such as compelling an agency to provide documents, need to be handled by an attorney, he said.

Crittenden said he hoped the panel might not need legal help after the first few years, when these key questions have to be addressed.

"I am hoping that eventually we will work ourselves out of a job," he said.

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