By Beth Musgrave – firstname.lastname@example.org
FRANKFORT — A proposal that would require the state to release records on children who die from abuse or neglect stalled Thursday when a House panel replaced it with language calling for further study of the issue through 2012.
The revised bill, which cleared the House Health and Welfare Committee on a 13-0 vote, now calls for creating a panel to study child fatalities and determine what information about those deaths should be made public.
Democratic Rep. Tom Burch of Louisville, the sponsor of House Bill 192, said he decided to alter the bill after hearing concerns from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services about making all of the records regarding child deaths public.
However, Burch said he still supports releasing most records and believes the proposal will ultimately lead to more public scrutiny of child abuse deaths. “When there is publicity, there is more action,” he said.
Kentucky had the highest rate of child deaths from abuse and neglect in the United States during 2007, according to a report released in October by a national child-advocacy group called Every Child Matters Education Fund.
The group has called on state officials to make public specific information about each child’s death, including whether he or she had previous contact with state social workers.
At least 12 states have passed laws requiring that child-protection records be released when a child dies from neglect or abuse.
Currently, the cabinet has the option to publicly release its documents about children who die or are severely injured by abusers, but officials routinely deny requests for those records.
The Herald-Leader has filed an appeal in Franklin Circuit Court of the cabinet’s denial of a request for records in the May death of 22-month-old Kayden Branham, who died in Wayne County after drinking liquid drain cleaner that was allegedly being used to manufacture methamphetamine.
Concern about releasing such records is understandable, but Kentucky’s high child mortality rate and the positive experience of other states “paint a case for opening records,” said Terry Brooks of Kentucky Youth Advocates.
“At a minimum, this could be done on a targeted pilot basis,” he said. “Furthermore, it may produce improved practices and policies for kids throughout Kentucky.”
He said the proposed panel could turn out to be a “catalyst for needed reforms or it could be an excuse for procrastination. ”
HB 192 would create a Child Abuse and Neglect Fatality Review Panel to identify trends in child fatalities and near child fatalities caused by child abuse and neglect.
The panel will also recommend “parameters” under which information about child fatality and near fatality cases may be released to the public. The panel will consist of doctors, state police, sheriffs and various members of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
It must have a final set of findings and recommendations by Sept. 30, 2012. The panel shall cease to exist on Oct. 31, 2012, the legislation says.
Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, questioned why the cabinet chooses not to disclose more information.
Department of Community Based Services Commissioner Pat Wilson did not answer questions during Thursday’s meeting about why the cabinet does not currently release that information.
However, Wilson said she was supportive of the changes in Burch’s bill and predicted that the panel will produce more thorough investigations of child abuse deaths.
The panel would review the cases, make recommendations about professional changes and other improvements in the child welfare system as a whole, the bill says.
Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, said she was concerned that there would be repercussions for social workers if the cabinet was at fault in a child’s death or near death.
“I don’t want this to be punitive,” Westrom said.
Such concerns aren’t valid, Burch said.
“What liability would the social worker have if they have were doing their job correctly?” Burch said. “When you hide things, that’s when things go wrong.”