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Panel calls for more study before releasing child death records

State Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville

By Beth Musgrave – bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

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.

Bill would spend $4 million for more social workers

State Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville

FRANKFORT — A bill filed in the state House Wednesday would appropriate $4 million to hire additional social workers and improve security for front-line social service employees.

House Bill 328, filed by Louisville Democrats Tom Burch and Joni Jenkins, would also establish an oversight committee to ensure that money appropriated by the General Assembly is used for the benefit of social workers.

In 2007, the Legislature passed the “Boni Bill,” which called for spending $6 million to help increase security and hire more social workers. The bill was named after a social service aide, Boni Frederick, who was killed while taking an infant child from a home visit with her mother.

However, the legislature only appropriated $2million of the $6 million. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services was supposed to come up with the remaining $4 million to implement the bill. However, it’s not clear what happened to the $4 million.

The bill would provide $3 million to fill front-line social worker positions and an additional $1 million for security improvements at social workers’ offices. Cabinet officials would report their progress to a group of lawmakers, the bill says.

— Beth Musgrave

Bill would restore funding for social workers

State Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville

FRANKFORT — A Louisville lawmaker who is disgruntled that 2007 legislation to improve social worker safety was never fully implemented said Thursday he will file a bill in coming days to restore funding for the measure.

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, and chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, said he has asked Gov. Steve Beshear to fully fund the 2007 Boni Bill. The bill was named after Boni Frederick, a social services aide who was killed while taking an infant child from a home visit with her mother.

The bill called for spending $6 million to hire more front-line staff, increase security at cabinet offices and establish neutral family visitation sites at cabinet offices, but much of that spending never happened.

The legislature gave the Cabinet for Health and Family Services $2 million to implement the bill. The cabinet was supposed to find the remaining money on its own but because of various cuts, it’s not clear what happened to the remaining $4 million.

“I want my $4 million back,” Burch said Thursday before three cabinet employees testified during a committee meeting.

Bills filed to open family courts, make child death records public

State Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville

FRANKFORT — A Louisville lawmaker and chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee filed two bills on Tuesday that would make information about the state’s child protection system more open to public scrutiny.

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, filed H.B.194 that would create a pilot program that would open family courts — which deal with child protection cases — to the public. Chief Supreme Court Justice John D. Minton has backed a pilot program to study the feasibility of opening family court, which is currently closed to the public. A second bill, H.B. 192, would require the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to make public its records in child fatality or near child fatality cases when a child dies as a result of abuse or neglect. The law currently says that the information “may” be made public but does not require the cabinet to do so.

Also Tuesday, Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, filed H.B. 189 which would change the state’s domestic violence statutes so people who are involved in relationships but are not married can also be charged under the state’s domestic violence laws. House Bill 189 would also require law enforcement to receive domestic violence training every two years.

— Beth Musgrave

A citizen’s guide to issues before the 2010 General Assembly

A $1.5 billion deficit in the next two-year state budget tops the 2010 Kentucky General Assembly’s agenda, but dozens of other proposals, dealing with everything from child pornography to industrialized hemp, will compete for lawmakers’ attention. The legislative session begins Tuesday.
Here are some of the top issues lawmakers will consider.

Budget and taxes

Topic: State budget

Details: The Kentucky Constitution mandates that lawmakers approve a two-year budget no later than April 15. To continue spending $9.1 billion a year from the General Fund, legislators will have to find an extra $890 million in revenue over the next two fiscal years. In addition, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear says the state has at least $600 million more in new expenses that must be paid for in the next budget.

Hurdles: Ultimately, a small group of leading lawmakers from both chambers will negotiate details of the budget during closed-door sessions in early April. Until then, no potential spending cut or tax increase can be ruled out.

Topic: Tax overhaul

Details: A variety of proposals to overhaul the state’s tax system are percolating as potential solutions to the $1.5 billion deficit that lawmakers face in the two-year budget. Senate President David Williams, a Republican, has signaled a willingness to consider the idea of abolishing the state income tax and replacing it with higher consumption taxes, such as the sales tax. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, has said he’d rather overhaul the tax structure than make deep cuts to education. Some lawmakers have proposed taxing more services — including attorney fees and auto repairs — and raising taxes on the rich.

Hurdles: Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who already has declared his intention to run for re-election in 2011, says that now is not the time to raise taxes on families and businesses struggling with a recession. Also, half of the members of the state Senate and all of the House members face re-election in 2010. They’ll be reluctant to vote for any bill that raises taxes.

Constitutional amendments

Topic: Expanded gambling

Details: A proposal by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, would allow voters to change the Kentucky Constitution to permit electronic slot machines in counties with horse racetracks.

Hurdles: The horse industry has rejected Thayer’s proposal as “too little too late.” It prefers a bill that would allow slots at racetracks without a change to the Constitution, but that proposal has previously died in the Republican-led Senate. Compromise seems unlikely.

Social workers say children and workers not safe

FRANKFORT — Kenton County social worker Barbara Cowan didn’t get home Tuesday until after 9 p.m.

She was supposed to leave work after 4 p.m., but had to investigate four possible child abuse and neglect cases that came to the office late that day. No other staff was available.

In one case, a police officer accompanied her, calling in three additional units to help. She investigated the others alone, protected only by a cell phone and a case file, Cowan said.

“This is my job,” she told a legislative committee on Wednesday. “This is not unusual.”

Cowan was among a group of social workers from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services who told the Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare that not much has changed in the two years since lawmakers approved what was supposed to be a landmark social worker safety bill.

Burch files bill to stop psychiatric hospitals

FRANKFORT — A Louisville legislator has prefiled a bill that if passed may put the brakes on a Gov. Steve Beshear-backed proposal to build more psychiatric units for adolescents to Kentucky.

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, prefiled legislation on Thursday that would re-instate an earlier ruling by a legislative panel that voted unanimously against a proposal that would add up to eight 50-bed psychiatric units for adolescents who are currently being treated at out-of-state facilities.

House panel rejects bill to limit abortions

FRANKFORT –A legislative panel deadlocked Tuesday on a proposal to limit abortions, effectively killing the bill’s chances of becoming law this year.

The House Health and Welfare Committee declined to send to the full House a bill that would require women to be presented with an ultrasound and have a face-to-face consultation with a physician before having an abortion. The 8-8 vote came after passionate pleas from women who have had an abortion, but differ on Senate Bill 79.

Burch found guilty of ethics violation

FRANKFORT — The Legislative Ethics Commission found Rep. Tom Burch guilty on Wednesday of violating state ethics laws and fined him $500.

Burch, D-Louisville, inappropriately contacted four judges about a parental rights case that was before them, the commission ruled. The court case involved a woman who was in danger of losing her kids. The commission found in its ruling that Burch had nothing to gain personally in the court case, rather he wanted to “correct what he viewed to be an injustice.”

Health cabinet created job for woman who dated key lawmaker

FRANKFORT — The Cabinet for Health and Family Services created a $63,000 job earlier this year for a woman who had dated a key lawmaker who helps oversee the cabinet.

Democratic Rep. Tom Burch of Louisville, who is chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, said he recommended Carolyn Robbins, a woman he previously dated, for the administrative job but did not tell the cabinet to hire her.