Friday, January 27, 2012

Beshear and child-welfare officials appeal records decision, say it is too broad, look to legislature

On the day the state was supposed to release unadulterated records on deaths and near deaths from child abuse, under a court order, it filed an appeal to stop the process. And though Gov. Steve Beshear had ordered the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to release the records, yesterday he sided with its officials, saying in an op-ed piece sent to Kentucky newspapers he did not "think the judge's order was protective enough" of informants who often want to remain secret, such as relatives, health-care providers, teachers and law-enforcement officials. (Getty Images photo)

“You teach in a small community and suspect a student is being abused,” Beshear wrote. “Can you come forward without the newspaper naming you as the accuser?" Jon Fleischaker, attorney for The Courier-Journal and the Kentucky Press Association, said Beshear was “fear-mongering,” and noted that Shepherd’s order to release records applies only in cases in which children were killed or nearly killed from abuse or neglect, following a state law designed to hold the cabinet accountable for its child protective services.

Beshear wrote, “The cabinet has been accused of 'operating under a veil of secrecy' in a supposed attempt to protect inept workers and a poorly designed system. But this is not about shielding the system from scrutiny. We understand the need to be more transparent than in years past.” The legislature may decide the issue, because Beshear said legislation is needed to clarify the extent of confidentiality, and House Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Tom Burch, D-Louisville, agreed.

In December, the cabinet handed over 353 pages of records, but the names of at least eight children who died from abuse or neglect had been redacted, along with all the names of children who had been seriously injured, as well as much other information. The Courier-Journal, the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Todd County Standard had sued the cabinet for refusing to release the records. Twice before, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ordered the cabinet to turn them over. Last week, Shepherd fined the agency $16,000 for its secretive treatment and delays. He also found the cabinet should pay more than $57,000 in legal fees for the newspapers. (Read more)

Yesterday, the cabinet filed its motion with the state Court of Appeals and "asked the court to block Shepherd's Jan. 19 order to release records, starting today, with limited redactions," reports the C-J's Deborah Yetter. In the meantime, the cabinet released about 90 internal reviews of child deaths and serious injuries incurred by abuse but with deletions it feels is necessary "to protect the best interests of the state's child welfare system," its motion read. (Read more)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Journalists, child-protection officials debate their differing approaches to Ky. child abuse problem

In a state that has led the nation in deaths of children from abuse and neglect, Kentucky journalists and the officials who must protect children agree that more public attention needs to be focused on the issue.

But they don’t agree on how to do it, and have been fighting expensive battles in court over it, because their professions have sharply divergent views on what kind of information the state should have to release.

“The profession of social work is based on confidentiality,” the state’s top child-protection official told reporters, editors and publishers during a panel discussion at the Kentucky Press Association convention in Lexington Friday afternoon.

Confidentiality “was drilled into us just as openness was drilled into you” in professional education, said Teresa James, who became acting commissioner of the Department for Community-Based Services in December after 25 years as a social worker. “Just as passionate as you are about the First Amendment, I am passionate about confidentiality.”

Social workers argue that without being able to assure informants of confidentiality, the system that protects children won’t get some of the information it needs.

But journalists, their employers and their lawyers say the state has been much more secretive than the law allows about cases in which children died or nearly died, circumstances in which state law makes otherwise confidential information available. (Read more)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Making agency more open gets top priority from attendees at Ky. Summit to End Child Abuse Deaths

"Eliminating secrecy at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services was the top vote-getter" among 250 "judges, lawmakers, child advocates and social workers" in a packed house at the Kentucky Summit to End Child Abuse Deaths yesterday in Louisville, reports Deborah Yetter of The Courier-Journal.

The top recommendations, as listed by Linda Blackford of the Lexington Herald-Leader, were to increase:
 Improve transparency and accountability at the cabinet;
 Increase funds for proven and effective services such court appointed advocates, substance abuse programs, in-home services and parent advocate programs;
 Increase funds for additional social workers and support;
 Improve the system of collaboration among agencies involved in the child welfare system.

"Transparency and accountability became big issues after the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal sued the state to get access to case files of children who have died or nearly died as a result of neglect and abuse," Blackford notes in her story.

Jon Fleischaker, left, and Dr. James J. Clark,
associate dean for research at the University
of Kentucky College of Social Work
Top Kentucky news-media lawyer Jon Fleischaker said it was details of the case of murdered Todd County 9-year-old Amy Dye — details "that the cabinet first denied it had, then fought to keep secret — that helped galvanize public outrage over shortcomings of the child welfare system," Yetter reports, quoting Fleischaker: “There is a culture of secrecy that deprives the public of all information. If the public doesn’t know about it, good luck on getting more funding.”

Cabinet Secretary Janie Miller "gave a brief luncheon speech at the summit, saying her agency welcomed the work of the summit," Yetter reports. "Afterward, in an interview, Miller declined to comment on the litigation over access to child abuse records between the cabinet and the state’s two largest newspapers." (Read more)

"Any bill that Kentucky lawmakers pass in the name of children should uphold the spirit and the letter of the state’s open records law," The Courier-Journal says in an editorial.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Judges like bill to open juvenile courts, but it would make reporters' notes subject to inspection

Family Court judges told a legislative committee yesterday that Kentucky's juvenile courts should be made open, to improve scrutiny of the state's bedraggled system of child protection, and endorsed a bill to start that. But the state's leading news-media lawyer, who has been fighting to open the system, objected to a provision in the bill that would make notes taken by anyone in court subject to inspection by the judge. For the story from Beth Musgrave of the Lexington Herald-Leader, click here.