State’s ‘culture of secrecy’ has improved amid tragedy of child abuse

Amye Bensenhaver
Amye Bensenhaver

In 2016, the Kentucky Court of Appeals issued a scathing opinion to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services in an open records dispute involving access to child fatality or near fatality records maintained by the Cabinet.

Reporter Debby Yetter’s devastating analysis of where Kentucky is today — three years after the court condemned the culture of secrecy in the Cabinet and nine years after the media’s epic open records battle which culminated in that opinion began — appeared in Sunday’s Courier Journal.

But there is one very significant difference between these articles and the articles Yetter and others — including Lexington Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep and Todd County Standard editor Ryan Craig — wrote in the past.

Yetter’s article gives no indication whatsoever that the Cabinet — as it is currently configured — attempted to avoid its legal obligations under the open records law by withholding records relating to child fatalities or near fatalities.

Yetter explained: “While most child protection cases are confidential, the Courier Journal was able to gather details about cases . . . from state social service records that are subject to public release in instances in which a child dies or nearly dies from neglect or abuse.”

She later confirmed that the Cabinet raised no objection to disclosure of child fatality or near fatality records she requested in gathering information for her series of articles.

She obtained some information from public discussions during meetings of the Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel — created by lawmakers in 2013 in response to media coverage of the plight of Kentucky’s abused and neglected children — and some from court documents, but she obtained most of the information from Cabinet records.

That’s a far cry from the resistance, subterfuge, and deceit she and others encountered from the Cabinet in 2009.

In its 2016 opinion, the Kentucky Court of Appeals imposed a $756,000 fine against the Cabinet for willfully withholding records in 140 cases.

The court reasoned: “The Cabinet’s conduct in this case was indeed egregious. The face of the record reveals the ‘culture of secrecy’ of which the trial court spoke; and it evinces an obvious and misguided belief that the Open Records Act is merely an ideal – a suggestion to be taken when it is convenient and flagrantly disregarded when it is not.

“In sum, we affirm the trial court, but we also echo its exasperation at the Cabinet’s systematic and categorical disregard for the rule of law – both as codified in the Open Records Act and as handed down by the Franklin Circuit Court. The Open Records Act is neither an ideal nor a suggestion. It is the law. Public entities must permit inspection of public records as required or risk meaningful punishment for noncompliance. Rigid adherence to this stark principle is the lifeblood of a law which rightly favors disclosure, fosters transparency, and secures the public trust.”

Yetter’s series confirms that we continue to fail Kentucky’s children at an even more alarming rate than recounted in her original articles. But it also confirms that — at least with respect to child fatality and near fatality records — there has been a change in the “culture of secrecy” that once existed at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Finally, it confirms that examination of public records exposes the factors contributing to the tragically high incidence of child fatalities and near fatalities in Kentucky: epidemic drug use, co-dependent personal relationships, mental illness, and failure to report coupled with decreasing numbers of overburdened case workers to address a rapidly increasing number of abuse and neglect cases.

The records disclose that errors are still being made and abused children are still being left in the homes where they are victimized. Cabinet officials offer assurances that reform efforts are underway to correct these errors.

In this tragic context there is no victory except, perhaps, the victory of the grim but necessary truth over lies, deceit, and secrecy.

Amye Bensenhaver is a retired assistant attorney general who specialized in Kentucky’s open records and meetings laws. She is the co-founder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.