Scrutiny of child-welfare agency welcome

It's encouraging that some key lawmakers want to lower the wall of secrecy that has surrounded Kentucky's handling of child-abuse deaths.

They also should go deeper, as Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks has proposed, and examine the "signs that our child-welfare system is not working."

The latest evidence of a system in crisis was reported last week by the Herald-Leader's Beth Musgrave and Bill Estep.

A child-protective worker in Western Kentucky resigned after allegedly failing to investigate reports of abuse against a three-year-old. The reports came from medical personnel who treated the child for a broken arm. The caseworker then allegedly lied to supervisors and in documents to hide her mishandling of the investigation.

The child died less than a month later of what the medical examiner said was blunt-force trauma to the head. Her father, 22, is accused of killing her.

Managers in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services were already moving to fire the caseworker when she resigned.

What the caseworker is accused of doing is inexcusable. Cabinet officials would have been right to terminate her employment.

At the same time, this tragedy raises systemic questions about the child-protection agency.

The social worker's supervisor said their office had seen reports of child abuse skyrocket and that five workers were being asked to investigate 75 to 90 referrals a month.

That averages out to 15 to 18 new cases a worker a month — on top of cases carried over from previous months.

The Child Welfare League of America says child-protective workers should be handling a maximum of 12 cases a month, total. Other studies recommend varying numbers. But no ones says a child-protective worker should be taking on 18 new cases a month.

Investigating child abuse is not a job in which you can take shortcuts or just work faster when the workload increases. To be effective, caseworkers must spend time face-to-face with children and families when abuse is suspected or has been documented. There is no substitute for personal contact and time.

The chairs of the legislature's Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare are planning a hearing next month on issues raised by recent court rulings ordering the Beshear administration to unseal records in child deaths or near-deaths.

Rep. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, and Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, are on the right track.

They should demand answers from the administration about the effects of successive budget cuts on the child-welfare agency's staffing and effectiveness. They also should find out what quality-control measures, if any, are in place to mitigate staffing shortages.

Children's lives depend on it.