By Beth Musgrave
FRANKFORT — A bill that would permanently establish a 20-member independent panel to review deaths and critical injuries of abused and neglected children won approval Friday from the Democrat-led House.
House Bill 290, which now heads to the Republican-led Senate, would establish a panel of experts to review social worker case files and other information about children killed or nearly killed from abuse or neglect.
The panel would be attached to the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and would make annual recommendations on how to improve Kentucky’s child protection system.
State Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, told House members on Friday that the bill will allow more oversight and transparency of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees child protection in Kentucky. The House voted 96-0 to pass HB 290.
The Kentucky Press Association, of which the Lexington Herald-Leader is a member, has opposed the measure, saying it would allow the panel to conduct its meetings in secret and would exempt all of its records from the state’s Open Records Act.
The House approved an amendment to the bill Friday that Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, said would address many of the transparency concerns.
He said the amended bill would limit the number of circumstances under which the panel could close its meetings. Panel members also would be allowed to recuse themselves in some cases and could report wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities.
“It will bring in a new era of transparency and accountability,” said Benvenuti, a former inspector general with the Cabinet for Health and Human Services.
Benvenuti, who issued several critical reports of child protection when he was inspector general from 2004 to 2007, said the amended bill would balance the panel’s need to access sensitive records and the public’s right to know how the group makes recommendations.
“I think what we want to avoid is hampering the deliberative process that the committee undergoes and undertakes,” Benvenuti said. “If we do that, then we are not going to get all the information that we need.”
Gov. Steve Beshear created an external review panel by executive order in July after several newspaper articles showed shortcomings in the child protection system. For the panel to continue beyond this year, it needs legislative approval.
The panel has met twice since July, but members expressed frustration that the cabinet provided documents that were heavily redacted, making them difficult to decipher. Members also said the panel needs additional information from other agencies to help determine what happened.
HB 290 would allow the panel to get additional information. The documents given to the panel would be exempt from the Open Records Act, but the information would still be available from the original agency, Benvenuti said.
Jon Fleischaker, a lawyer for the Kentucky Press Association, said changes to the bill still allow for too much secrecy. The panel can still close meetings and the documents the panel uses to make recommendations will not be disclosed, he said.
“It’s the farthest thing from a transparency law,” Fleischaker said. “It’s the exact opposite; it’s a secrecy law.”
Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, said Friday that the bill was a step in the right direction but more needs to be done to address staffing, training and pay of social workers.
“It’s not good enough,” Wayne said. “It’s a beginning but it’s certainly not a fix.”
Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, said the proposal will get a hearing in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which she chairs.
Denton, who is a member of the current external review panel, said she could not say how the committee might alter HB 290. In general, Denton said that she doesn’t think the panel’s meetings need to be closed to the public.
“I don’t believe we should have blanket closed meetings,” Denton said. “I think in most cases it will be quite easy to talk about these cases without releasing any identifying information.”
She said approving the bill in coming weeks remains a top priority.