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Attorney General: Cabinet violated Open Records law in records of 2-year-old child

October 15, 2012 | | Comments 0

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Attorney General Jack Conway’s office has ruled that the Cabinet for Health and Family Services improperly withheld information from a newspaper seeking information on the death of a 2-year-old Prestonsburg boy who was allegedly killed by his aunt and uncle.

The Mountain Citizen in Inez had requested information from the cabinet regarding the death of 2-year-old Watson Adkins, who was found unresponsive at his aunt and uncle’s home in Prestonsburg on Sept. 29, 2011. The Mountain Citizen had requested all information regarding Watson, who was removed from his mother’s home by state social workers prior to his death and placed with his aunt and uncle, Gladys and Jason Dickerson.

Gladys Dickerson was Watson’s maternal aunt and had custody of him at the time of his death.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services initially did not provide two previous unsubstantiated reports of abuse against Gladys and Jason Dickerson to the newspaper but later supplied the reports with much of the information redacted, the attorney general’s opinion said.

The opinion said the cabinet could not redact some of that information, including the names of perpetrators involved in the unsubstantiated reports. The opinion also said that the cabinet failed to follow the state’s Open Records Act in its response to The Mountain Citizen by failing to cite either state or federal law that allowed it to withhold or redact certain information.

The attorney general’s opinion, publicly released on Monday, is just the latest in a more than three-year legal battle between the media and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services over what can be released after a child is killed from abuse and neglect. The Lexington Heald-Leader and the Louisville Courier-Journal have sued the state twice over the handling of social worker files of children who have been killed or nearly killed as a result of abuse and neglect. What information can be redacted or blacked out of those files is currently on appeal.

Gary Ball, the editor of the Mountain Citizen in Inez, said he was relieved that the attorney general’s office agreed that too much information has been removed from the files. Ball filed the request for the information after hearing that there had been previous reports to the cabinet regarding Gladys and Jason Dickerson’s treatment of the children.

“I got heavily redacted information,” said Ball. “I wanted all records from the time that they were removed from the home to the time of the criminal charges.”

According to news accounts, Watson Adkins and his four siblings were removed from his mother’s home in February 2011 because of the conditions in the home, records from the cabinet showed. The mother was allowed supervised visitation with the children between February 2011 and September 2011, Ball said. The mother had taken photos of the children with suspicious injuries, Ball said.

Ball said that the cabinet had investigated two reports of alleged abuse against Gladys and Jason Dickerson before September 2011. Ball received the reports from the cabinet but it’s difficult to tell why those reports were not substantiated.

“I want the records that will show me how they made that determination that those reports were unsubstantiated,” Ball said.

Gladys and Jason Dickerson were both charged with murder after Watson’s death. Those charges are still pending. Court records allege that Watson was repeatedly beaten in July, August and September as were his four siblings.

A local daycare where Watson and his siblings attended was shut down by the Office of Inspector General with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services in October 2011 for failing to report alleged physical abuse of the children. Watson’s five-year-old sibling allegedly told staff at Dinosaur Playland Daycare in Prestonsburg that her uncle hurt her and pleaded with staff to take her home with them. Staff also saw injuries to Watson’s head on Sept. 26, three days before Watson died.

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