Op-Ed

We already know the reasons for child deaths

Eighteen children died as a result of abuse or neglect in fiscal year 2011 compared to 33 deaths the previous year, 29 in fiscal year 2009 and 31 in fiscal year 2008.

Now, the commissioner of the state Department for Community Based Services has resigned during a debate about record reviews of deceased children that may have nothing to contribute to a discussion about the death of children.

Social workers, though not all employees of the department, are graduates of accredited schools of social work and are bound by a social work code of ethics that strictly prohibits the release of client information as well as those associated with the client even after the client has died.

In this case, the social work principle of confidentiality flies directly in the face of the journalistic principle indicating that the public has a right to know all.

The governor's mandate to release the records of those children killed by their caregivers in 2011 would have forced the commissioner, in essence, to act in direct opposition to her professional values and ethics.

Social workers (even those appointed to the position of commissioner) who violate the code are to be reported to the State Board of Social Work for review and action leading to a variety of possible negative actions against the violator's license.

Might we find in those record the answers necessary to end all child fatalities suffered at the hand of caregivers?

Sadly, I predict that this will not happen. We may, indeed, find an employee (social worker or not) to blame, a policy that is not consistently enforced or a sharp decline in fiscal resources that needs to be addressed.

In fact, I am sure this type of information is contained in the records of those deceased children whose confidentiality social workers are ethically bound to protect.

We, the public, through our resource allocations and decisions about which people among us are worthy and which are not, have a role to play in the death of those children.

We have allowed the department's already-meager budget to be cut to unspeakably low levels, allowed the case loads of social workers to increase to the point that even a supremely talented and educated social worker struggles with the sheer volume of the work, and we have only begun to discuss the needs of vulnerable children after 18 of them have died.

It seems to me that we decided long ago that Kentucky's children were not deserving of the best resources the state could offer.

I can predict the review of those records will lead to findings that are already known to us but left unaddressed.

Children die in Kentucky because of poverty. Social workers work with children and families that, two years ago, were operating on the "just" system — just enough food to get to the first of the month, just enough gas to go to the doctor, just enough coal to get through the winter.

Those same Kentucky families, barely functioning before the economic crisis, collapsed afterwards. Rates of drug and alcohol abuse rose dramatically, jobs were lost, mental-health problems increased, and families became isolated in their poverty and suffering. When families collapse, children suffer.

As the deaths of those children are reviewed and their confidentiality is shattered like a fragile vase, we need to take responsibility for our failure of those same children as well as the department. We allow Kentucky's children to live in squalor, deal with hunger as best they can, and be subjected to angry, out-of-control individuals who comprise the only family ever known to them.

We have financially starved the department to the point that it cannot protect the children in Kentucky without some of them being killed. Is this good enough? I think not. I wonder what the department could do for Kentucky's children if it was supported by the public, legislature and the media instead of breaking the confidentiality promised to those children prior to their death?

The reasons for their death, as well as the way to prevent additional deaths, are right in front of us already.

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