Monday, April 02, 2007

Children are dying, and Cabinet is hiding behind veil of confidentiality

Commentary: Unlock the files - child-abuse cases need public scrutiny
Lexington Herald-Leader, March 30, 2007, pg. A12.

The clamp on information after a child dies of abuse in Kentucky is a disservice to the taxpaying public and to children at risk of becoming the next grisly statistic.

Lawmakers and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services should lift the lid on events leading to a child's death, including the role of government agencies.Kentucky children die of abuse and neglect at a significantly higher rate than the national average, and the number of such deaths is rising.

It's naive to think that all children can be shielded from the brutality in their lives. But it's also reasonable for the public to be able to scrutinize how well government agencies are protecting the children with whom they have contact.

In the last few weeks, parents have been charged in the deaths of three Central Kentucky children, including one who had been moved from foster care into a home where both adults had records of domestic violence.

As it stands, the cabinet that oversees child protection seldom, if ever, releases its internal investigations into such deaths.

Cabinet lawyers cite the confidentiality of clients' medical records -- even when the client is dead -- and other provisions of Kentucky law.

We understand the importance of protecting the privacy of siblings and informants. But there has to be a way to redact genuinely sensitive information while giving the public an idea of whether government agencies have dropped the ball.

States that are losing fewer children to abuse than Kentucky have opened up the process to increase accountability. Kentucky should, too.

State Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, D-Lexington, plans to once again push for the release of summaries of the internal reviews; similar legislation failed in 2004.

Palumbo also says she'll draft legislation that would allow lawmakers to review cases to track decisions made by the child-protection agency.

In many cases, such disclosure would reveal that social workers had done all they could and would exonerate the cabinet.

We understand there are complicated questions surrounding the privacy of juveniles -- those who have committed crimes and those who are victims of crimes. Among those who say juveniles would be better protected by opening up certain legal proceedings, including termination of parental rights, is former state Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti.

Shedding more light on child-abuse deaths is not a complicated question. It's the obvious right thing -- and something that the legislature should require and that the cabinet should allow on its own.

State Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo will again push for the release of data.


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