Shed more light on child deaths

There are hundreds of pages of records about the Kentucky toddler who was living in an alleged meth lab and died after drinking drain cleaner used to make the illegal drug. The records were released only because of a court order.

Not one of the pages pinpoints the breakdowns in the system that was supposed to protect him and his 14-year-old mother.

Nowhere in the voluminous record is there an answer to what should have been done differently. Or what could be done from now on to prevent such tragedies. (The agency failed in this case to conduct an internal review, but there's no reason to think the confidential internal reviews are revealing or incisive either.)

An idea being floated by the Beshear administration does hold hope for better answers and stronger protections for Kentucky's children.

Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Janie Miller is proposing creation of an independent external review for cases involving child fatalities and near fatalities.

Modeled on a Virginia law, the proposal is not yet in bill form but Miller thinks it can be ready for action by this General Assembly.

This openness to external examination marks a dramatic turn for an agency that has long seemed more interested in covering up its mistakes than learning from them.

Unfortunately, the cabinet is fumbling this opportunity and has yet again created the impression that withholding information is its main goal. An emergency regulation that was put into effect Jan. 3 sharply limits the records the cabinet would release after a child dies or is put at grave risk by abuse or neglect.

Granted, sharing any information at all would be an improvement. But the regulation falls short of what's needed — and what's required by the Kentucky Open Records Act.

Under the regulation, the cabinet would release only summaries of its investigation, findings, recommendations, referrals and history of prior involvement with the child. These summaries would be subject to filtering and interpretation by agency employees.

The public has an obvious interest when a child dies on the state's watch. By withholding the underlying records, the cabinet is violating the public trust.

The administration insists that releasing the actual records would jeopardize $61 million in federal funding by violating confidentiality requirements in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.

But this is an overly restrictive view of the federal law which does allow states to release full investigations. And as long as federal law allows the release of these records, the Kentucky Open Records Act requires it, as Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled last month before releasing the investigative file on the Wayne County toddler.

Miller's outline for the external review process is also overly heavy on what the public couldn't be told.

The cabinet's continued insistence on secrecy drew rebukes from newspapers' lawyers and aroused the suspicions of some lawmakers.

But this should not be an insurmountable impasse.

Some lawmakers have a longstanding interest in shedding more light on the handling of child abuse and neglect cases. The Open Records Act has provisions for protecting the privacy of siblings and other family members. Thanks to the administration's support for an external review process, the stage is set for bringing greater accountability and transparency to a child-protection system that has failed too often in the dark.

Lawmakers and the administration should make this a priority.