Beshear takes first step to fix child protection

Amy Dye of Todd County was killed by her adoptive brother in February at age 9.
Amy Dye of Todd County was killed by her adoptive brother in February at age 9.

In announcing his decision to lower the wall of secrecy around child abuse deaths in Kentucky, Gov. Steve Beshear said: "Letting newspaper reporters see more information is not a magic formula that will instantly reduce deaths involving child abuse and neglect."

We couldn't agree more. Newspaper reporters have no control over the state agency that's responsible for protecting Kentucky's children from abuse and neglect.

But Beshear does.

The four-point plan he unveiled Tuesday is a start, and Beshear's promise "to make transparency the norm and not the exception" is welcome, if overdue.

The governor's plan to create an independent panel to examine child deaths and near-deaths and make recommendations for strengthening the protective system is one we have endorsed in the past.

Beshear also said the Cabinet for Health and Family Services has begun a review and could have recommendations for improving the child-protection system ready for the legislature in January.

All that sounds good, but if Beshear really wants to better protect Kentucky's children, he will have to involve more than the cabinet in the search for answers.

An agency that has "completely insulated itself from meaningful public scrutiny," as Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd recently described it, cannot realistically be expected to suddenly expose its own shortcomings and needs.

If Beshear wants real reform, he and the legislature should authorize an independent examination of the child welfare system.

A real examination would take an unblinking look at the effect of repeated budget cuts on the state's capacity to protect children. Another two percent cut in funding for most state agencies was announced at almost the same time Beshear was responding for the first time to what he called "the horrifying details" of recent child abuse and neglect deaths.

If Beshear wants real improvement, he'll also have to look at the management of child protection. He'll have to guarantee frontline workers the training, resources, support and manageable case loads needed to do their jobs. He'll have to strengthen Kentucky's supports for families who are at risk of violence and neglect.

Kentucky's children are our future. Child victims, such as 9-year-old Amy Dye, who have suffered and died under the state's watch, reveal a crisis in protecting our future. These children are worth the governor's and legislature's time.

How much transparency and accountability Beshear is really promising remains to be seen. The governor said he wants the General Assembly to debate and provide "clear guidance" on what information from child death case files should remain confidential.

And Beshear's administration will be back in Shepherd's court this week seeking to withhold information about child deaths from the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal, which have waged a legal battle to open the records.

Opening cabinet records will not automatically make Kentucky's children safer. But keeping records sealed from public scrutiny allows the cabinet to avoid accountability, and that does guarantee more avoidable tragedies.