Much has been written about the iron curtain of secrecy that allows the state to cover up mistakes when caseworkers investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect.
But instead of seeking true transparency, most advocates are seeking far too little. They want to replace the iron curtain with a funhouse mirror.
Demands that records be released only in cases where a child dies or nearly dies distort the system's failings, leaving the impression that the only mistake workers make is leaving children in dangerous homes.
In fact, child-welfare systems are arbitrary, capricious and cruel. They routinely err in all directions, leaving some children in danger even as many more are taken from homes that are safe or could be made safe if families got the right kinds of help.
A rare chance to see the full story came in 2007 when the Cabinet for Health and Family Services Inspector General released a scathing report on the Department for of Community Based Services office in Hardin County. The report exposed needless removal of children and contempt for families. Among the findings:
"Statements reflecting personal bias against clients were used in documenting incidents and situations in the files. ... DCBS staff complained that other staff made comments reflecting racial stereotypes. ... Social service workers have laughed at parents as they advised them they were removing their children and during the removal process. Social service workers have called clients indecent names."
This report came a year after the Herald-Leader exposed the scandal of "quick-trigger adoptions" — children torn from everyone they know and love and rushed to termination of parental rights so the state could collect what amounts to bounties from the federal government.
In 2010, Kentucky took away children at a rate more than 30 percent above the national average and double the rate of states widely regarded as, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe — even when rates of child poverty are factored in.
The problem of children left in abusive homes and the problem of children torn needlessly from everyone they know and love are not opposites that need to be "balanced." Rather, they are directly related.
We've all read the stories about caseworkers overloaded with 50 or 60 cases each.
A lot of what is overloading those workers are cases of children needlessly removed from their homes. But it's hard to see that when looking at the system through a funhouse mirror.
Kentucky needs real transparency. That means:
■ A strong rebuttable presumption that all court hearings in child-welfare cases are open to the media and public. More than a dozen states already do this. Not one state to open these hearings has closed them again.
That's because all the fears of opponents proved groundless. All over the country, onetime opponents of open courts became converts after they saw how well it worked.
■ A strong rebuttable presumption that most documents are public not only in death and near-death cases, but in all cases. Where a particular document's disclosure might harm a child, a lawyer for that child or the parents should be able to ask a judge to seal it, with the judge making the final decision.
■ Give the Department for Community-Based Services the right to comment on specific cases. Agencies like it have this right in a few states. This won't stop the agency from stonewalling, but at least agency officials wouldn't be able to hide behind a law that supposedly prevents them from discussing a case.
That might make reporters more willing to publish the stories they hear over and over from families whose children have been taken needlessly.
Judge Paula Sherlock declared: "Once the obituary is written, the gloves come off. We need to take a clean look at what happened."
But if the goal is fewer obituaries, the gloves need to come off a lot sooner.