Appellate Judge Irv Maze was the latest to use the term “culture of secrecy” to describe the stubborn bureaucratic mind-set that has ill served too many young Kentuckians.
Maze was writing for a three-judge panel of the Kentucky Court of Appeals that last week upheld more than $1 million in penalties and fees against the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services for violating the Open Records Act by withholding records of child deaths.
The Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal filed suit to open the records after two children who were under the cabinet’s supervision died in terrible, avoidable circumstances.
In 2009, toddler Kayden Branham Daniels drank from a cup of drain cleaner used to make methamphetamine in the trailer where he was living with his 14-year-old mother, herself a victim of long neglect, in Wayne County.
In 2010, Amy Dye, 9, was beaten to death in her adoptive home in Todd County, where she remained even after credible reports of abuse by a nurse and other adults at the child’s school.
When helpless children die on the cabinet’s watch, the public needs to know what went wrong — because understanding what went wrong is a necessary step in making sure it does not happen again.
Transparency’s power to bring about change, along with a desire to better protect Kentucky’s children, is driving calls to open up proceedings in cases of child neglect, abuse and dependency.
Opening such proceedings was the first recommendation in the 2015 annual report of the Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel, which was created in the wake of the high-profile deaths to examine child deaths and near deaths and advise on how to keep children safer and strengthen the state’s protective services.
“Open court proceedings increase public awareness of the critical problems faced by judges, county attorneys, guardians ad litem, and child welfare agencies and may enhance accountability in the conduct of these proceedings by lifting the potential veil of secrecy,” the panel said.
Open proceedings also would increase awareness of the challenges faced by many Kentucky children and families and encourage stronger support for them.
The legislature can bring a sliver of sunshine to the system by approving Senate Bill 40, which cleared the Senate on Feb. 19.
Sponsored by Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, SB 40 asks the Supreme Court to launch a pilot program in at least three districts where judges have volunteered to open some juvenile court proceedings. Cases involving sex abuse would be closed, and judges would have the discretion to close other cases.
The results of the pilot program would be assessed after four years.
The idea has bipartisan support; a similar pilot project has been proposed by Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, in the past.
Few states hide their handling of child abuse and neglect cases to the extent that Kentucky does. The legislature should seize this chance to catch up just a little bit. Young lives are at stake.