Vulnerable children must be protected from abuse and neglect.
That’s the goal of every part of society, from parents to police, from teachers to social workers, from social service agencies to state government.
To ensure that protection is as strong as it can be, we must not only be continuously improving the “system” but also – when abuse and neglect leads to tragic consequences – taking a step back and examining whether that system broke down.
Recently, Gov. Steve Beshear took two steps to increase scrutiny of the practices of government entities in cases where abuse and neglect resulted in the injury or death of a child.
First, he created by executive order the Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel.
This is an independent 17-member panel that will be made up of experts and stakeholders in child abuse and neglect issues, including law enforcement, social services officials and representatives of the three branches of state government.
Those members not serving in their official capacities will be selected for appointment by peer review groups and by the state attorney general.
Attached to the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, the panel will meet quarterly to review official records and other information and will publish an annual and public report of findings and recommendations. Its goal will be to identify the medical, legal and psychosocial conditions that contributed to a child’s death or near-death and recommend improvements to that system as well as any appropriate disciplinary action.
We must learn from tragic circumstances.
The second step he took was to direct the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which I have headed since mid-April, to provide to the media the rest of the case files and other records that have been the subject of an ongoing court fight.
Already the Cabinet has released records from about 75 cases of death and near-death that occurred in 2009-10. The governor’s directive applies to about 45 remaining case files. An additional 20 others still have pending court action and will be released after that action is closed.
There remain many misconceptions about why the Cabinet is in court and why it continues that court battle. Simply stated, we disagree about how much personal information about the child victims, their siblings and other innocent parties in a case should be released. In a very limited way, we have protected information like Social Security numbers, financial information, identifying information and – as the law requires – the identities of people who at risk to themselves came forward to report abuse.
Despite repeated and erroneous reports to the contrary, we have NOT withheld – and are NOT now seeking to withhold – information about Cabinet policies, decisions, employees or action. Since the Cabinet began releasing these case files last year, we have at no time attempted to protect the identities of staff who worked those cases or to shield those actions from review.
In fact, we welcome that scrutiny, as the creation of the independent panel makes clear.
Since 2007, the Cabinet’s Department for Community Based Services has implemented an array of training for its staff and community partners, as well as several initiatives – such as forensics tests and substance-abuse treatment – to both head off and respond to abuse.
The people of Kentucky can rest assured that I, Gov. Beshear and other top state officials are committed to working toward the time when all children can live happy, peaceful, productive and safe lives.
Audrey Haynes is secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.