Judge's criticism valid in abuse case

The Beshear administration should heed a Kenton County judge's criticism of the secrecy and lack of accountability surrounding child deaths in Kentucky.

District Judge Ken Easterling speaks from experience and knowledge. Before becoming a judge in Covington, Easterling prosecuted child abuse, combated juvenile delinquency and served on a multidisciplinary team dealing with sexual assaults against children.

His criticism of a "very closed, shrouded-in-secrecy" child protective agency whose internal investigations are "like asking Richard Nixon to review what happened in Watergate" should carry a lot of weight. Easterling isn't out to sensationalize family tragedies. He is interested in the welfare of helpless children.

His remarks make clear that the Cabinet for Health and Family Services' insistence on concealing what could be important details of its own failings has become untenable and indefensible.

The judge's criticism came during a preliminary hearing for a mother whose 9-month-old daughter died after becoming wedged between a mattress and wall atop a baseboard heater. Police say the mother was in an alcohol- and prescription drug-induced sleep when the baby died. They were living with two other children in one room of a rental house.

Easterling said the cabinet had had contact with the mother six times without seeking to remove the baby.

After the judge asked for and was given a copy of the file in the case, the cabinet filed a motion to block the file's public release.

Meanwhile, the cabinet's refusal to release case files in other child deaths occurring on the state's watch has prompted another lawsuit against the cabinet by the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal.

Earlier, the newspapers obtained a Franklin Circuit Court ruling that said, since nothing in state or federal law prohibits the release of case files in child deaths stemming from abuse or neglect, the documents are public records.

The cabinet responded by implementing a regulation limiting the records it will release in response to open-records requests.

This is a fight the cabinet cannot win without doing irreparable damage to its own credibility and violating the public trust.

We don't question state officials' commitment to protecting children or the sincerity of their concerns about the privacy of innocent children and the sources who report child abuse and neglect.

These privacy concerns can be accommodated within the Open Records Act. And they ring hollow against the public's urgent interest in knowing how well the state is protecting children — and what needs to be done to make the protective system work better.