Lift information blackout on child deaths

The Beshear administration has lost again in its attempt to keep the lid on information about child abuse deaths that occur on the state's watch.

U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves last week dismissed the state's attempt to find a friendlier venue for its pro-secrecy arguments in federal court. Reeves returned the issue to Franklin Circuit Court, which last year ruled that, under Kentucky's open government laws, files in fatal child abuse and neglect cases are public records.

Now the administration should stop feeding the perception that bureaucrats are just trying to cover up their own mistakes.

It can do this by adopting a policy that respects the public's legitimate interest in knowing how well the state is protecting Kentucky's children — and where there are gaps in protection that need fixing.

Kentucky's clamp on information regarding the state's role in child deaths was loosened last year with a Franklin Circuit Court ruling in the case of a toddler who died after drinking drain cleaner allegedly used in making methamphetamine. Both the dead toddler and his teen mother were being tracked by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, though the children were not in state custody at the time of the death.

The cabinet responded to the court ruling by imposing a regulation that would narrowly limit information released in future child deaths.

The Lexington Herald-Leader and Courier-Journal of Louisville challenged the new regulation. Rather than try to defend it in state court, the cabinet sought to have the case moved to federal court.

Cabinet officials, and even Gov. Steve Beshear, have claimed the state could lose federal funding if it violates confidentiality requirements in the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.

However, nothing in that federal law precludes the release of state records related to children who die or are seriously injured as a result of abuse or neglect.

Ruling on procedural questions, Reeves found no "substantial question of federal law."

In the absence of any federal restriction, the records are public, according to last year's ruling by Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd.

There are legitimate concerns about protecting the confidentiality of state informants and the privacy of other family members, especially siblings, in child abuse and neglect cases.

These concerns can be accommodated within the Open Records Law — and without the information blackout the Beshear administration should quit defending.