By Mike FarrellKyForward contributor
Gov. Steve Beshear is taking important steps to address the embarrassing scandal his Cabinet for Health and Family Services has created through its refusal to release records about children who are killed or severely injured while under its care.
The governor unveiled a four-point plan on Nov. 29 to force the agency to be accountable in these disturbing cases:
– he directed the cabinet to “immediately” begin releasing its records in the deaths or near-deaths of supervised children.
– he pledged to propose legislation that will spell out what the cabinet must release in every such tragedy.
– he plans to resubmit his legislative proposal to create an independent review panel to examine child fatalities and near-fatalities where abuse and/or neglect are alleged.
– he ordered the cabinet to review its practices, procedures, policies and laws related to child protection to look for areas of improvement.
These measures are all good and should result in better protection for at-risk children. No one is naïve enough to believe that the state of Kentucky, or any other state, can ensure that every child grows up in a safe and nurturing home.
But the problem is serious. In a series published in December 2009, the Courier-Journal reported that 270 Kentucky children had died from abuse or neglect in the previous decade, and more than half of those children had come to the attention of the state before their deaths.
If that wasn’t enough of an impetus for dramatic state action, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled in may 2010 the cabinet’s records must be open to the public when a child under its care dies. The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by the Herald-Leader and the Courier-Journal after the death of Kayden Branham in may 2009.
Kayden, who was 20 months old at the time, and his 14-year-old mother were under the supervision of the state’s foster care program for abused and neglected children.
The cabinet has argued repeatedly that state and federal laws require it to maintain the confidentiality of all records involving children under its supervision. Judge Shepherd soundly rejected the argument and ruled state law required the release of those records.
“The record before this court is devoid of any legal basis to deny public access to these records,” he wrote last year. “The cabinet’s arguments appear to be based more on the culture of the agency, which seeks to avoid public scrutiny, than on any statutory prohibition.”
“It is not just the privacy interests of state employees and family members of Kayden Branham that are at stake here,” he wrote. “Also at stake are the lives and the welfare of hundreds of other children who are in the state’s foster care system.”
Exactly. That is why a year ago Gov. Beshear should have been leading the effort to open the records while directing the attention of the public and of the General Assembly to the issues that have contributed to the deaths. The legislature should be near the end of hearings on these issues and preparing to address them rather than just getting started.
Allowing the cabinet to review its own policies is like asking the wolf with hen feathers in his mouth to examine security measures at the chicken coop. this cabinet, entrenched in secrecy, has damaged its credibility with the public by resisting orders of a state judge and its insistence on secrecy.
A better strategy would be a blue-ribbon panel charged with reviewing the cabinet and its policies so that the public can have confidence in any recommended changes. perhaps the governor could persuade the state’s retiring auditor, Crit Luallen, to delay her well-deserved respite from public service to lead this review.
Other voices besides the “experts” inside the government compound need to examine what has happened and discuss their ideas about what should be done. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan declared almost 50 years ago that the nation had “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open.” can anyone think of a more important public issue in our state right now than the safety of endangered children? It’s really hard to debate what changes should be made when secrecy is the cabinet’s creed.
Transparency allows the public to know what is going on. What many government officials seem to forget is that they work for the public to serve the public. No one gives them the right to keep secrets from the public. If child protective service workers are overworked and underpaid, the public should know it. If protection breaks down because the state doesn’t have enough social workers, the public should know it. If children are more at risk in our communities because of the drug culture that exists in some areas of the state, the public should know it. The public cannot be mobilized to support new measures if it is kept in the dark.
Frankly, it is easier to be in the dark. Reading Judge Shepherd’s ruling on the Todd County Standard’s lawsuit to obtain the cabinet’s records about the death of a nine-year-old bludgeoned to death sickened and infuriated me. But if we all take the attitude that we can leave these messy matters to the state, the government becomes unaccountable.
This creed of confidentiality is based in the premise that people cannot “handle” information and will misuse it. That certainly is not a democratic ideal. We’re not expecting the government to tell us every time someone calls and falsely reports that her neighbor is not feeding her children. But when a Todd County girl whose adoption was approved by the cabinet is bludgeoned to death by her adoptive brother, we want to know what happened. And we want to know why it happened so that it won’t happen to another child.
While ending the culture of secrecy is a factor in providing more protection to our children, it is only one. State budget cuts have diminished the cabinet’s ability to provide programs aimed at alleviating child abuse. The legislature has difficult decisions ahead.
So, fellow citizens, this is only the beginning. We have to stay engaged to ensure that when this process is finished, the men and women in the General Assembly will have turned over all the rocks, asked all the difficult questions, and listened to our voices to ensure that the state is doing all it can to ensure our children are safe. And that the culture of secrecy at the cabinet is replaced by a culture of openness.
What kind of people are we if we don’t care for the children of our community?
Mike Farrell is the director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky and an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications. he was a journalist for nearly 20 years at The Kentucky Post. his views are his own and not those of the university or of KyForward.