Journalists, child-protection officials debate their different approaches to Kentucky's child-abuse problems

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
University of Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. – 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.

Three times a Frankfort judge has agreed, most recently ordering the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to turn over its reviews of 90 deaths or near-deaths of children from abuse or neglect in 2009-10, and ordering the cabinet to pay more than $57,000 in legal fees for newspapers that sought the files.

Franklin Circuit Judge Philip Shepherd also told the cabinet to pay $16,000 in civil penalties for violating the state Open Records Act by prolonging litigation, subverting an earlier ruling and telling the Todd County Standard that it had no file on a 9-year-old killed by an abusive stepbrother, when it did.

Tina Heavrin, the cabinet’s general counsel, wouldn’t say during the panel discussion if the agency will appeal the ruling, which also covered a case pushed by The Courier-Journal of Louisville and the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Jon Fleischaker, counsel for The Courier-Journal and KPA, said he believed it was the first time that a judge had fined a state agency for violating the records law, enacted in 1976.

That may be a reflection of what Shepherd and Fleischaker have called “the culture of secrecy” at the cabinet, and of social workers’ depth of feeling about the need for confidentiality. But during the panel discussion, they and journalists found some common ground in a desire to help the public understand the seriousness of the problem.

“I have long been determined to expose the problem of child abuse . . . because I don’t think it is going to get better until it is exposed,” Courier-Journal reporter Deborah Yetter said. The average Kentuckian needs a sense of the depth of the problem and its causes – the role of families and the history of poverty, drug abuse and other social problems – and that cannot be done without better access to records, she said.

Earlier, Heavrin asked if journalists could do stories on abuse-case files without the names, but Fleischaker said that without names, “You can’t do your own investigation.” He said the intent of the law is to release enough information so the public can judge the cabinet’s performance, and while officials argue that confidentiality protects children, “I think transparency protects the kids.”

Reporters can write a lot about statistics, Yetter said, but stories about one person or family have more impact. She said the file of 9-year-old murder victim Amy Dye of Todd County, which Shepherd made public in the Standard’s lawsuit, “shocked a lot of people, and the reaction was extraordinary.”

Standard Editor-Publisher Ryan Craig said his paper started covering the Dye case “as a terrible murder,” but after a feature story about her “made it seem she had a good life,” the paper got calls from nurses, teachers and two sources he couldn’t divulge saying the story “was wrong in ways you can’t possibly imagine. . . . We learned that Amy Dye didn’t have a great life.”

The file showed the state had lost track of Amy after she was sent out of state and returned to a home where abuse had been reported.

“If you hang on to secrecy as much as we hang on to the First Amendment, I don’t see this battle ending,” Craig told the cabinet officials.

“Ryan has set a great example for us” as smaller newspapers, outgoing KPA President Jamie Sizemore, publisher of The Kentucky Standard in Bardstown, said from the audience near the end of the discussion. “We have to do our part, too.”

Sizemore and Jamie Baker-Nantz of the Grant County News complained that the cabinet’s local offices won’t respond to calls seeking the most innocuous information or “the good stories,” such as abused children who have been adopted. Cabinet officials suggested calling the main office in Frankfort so it could give orders to local offices.

James, who started her remarks by saying she was not there to second-guess anyone, ultimately said, “Maybe there are things that could have been done differently” in the Dye case, and “I do second-guess the whole way” in the job she has, including reviewing Amy’s file the day after she died.

“If Amy Dye’s death, as tragic as it was – and it was painful for me – if it makes our child welfare system in this state stronger . . . I don’t regret anything,” she said.