No excuse for locking up child services information

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Jan. 28 editorial

ISSUE: Withholding information about DCBS cases

OUR VIEW: Saving families comes first

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services must think Kentuckians have memory problems.
Approximately five years after its Office of the Inspector General issued a scathing report on the performance of the Department of Community-Based Services in Hardin County, the cabinet again is attempting to hide from public view the evidence surrounding a child’s death.
The toddler and his 14-year-old mother were under DCBS supervision when the child drank drain cleaner in a purported methamphetamine lab.
After newspapers sued for — and won — the right to review records in the case, the cabinet filed an “emergency regulation” to get around the court’s ruling. It also asked a lawmaker to sponsor legislation that would set up a secret panel to determine what information to release in other cases of children who have been harmed or died.
Once again, Kentucky officials are attempting to comply with open records laws by adding layers of bureaucracy.
Another child is dead. What possible benefit to the public is there for the records to remain secret? We can’t think of any, but can image all kinds of reasons (none good) why state government might want to keep the facts to itself.
Beyond this one case, what the cabinet proposes is a huge step in the wrong direction for a state that only a year ago attempted to open the doors to family court proceedings.
Secrecy in government is part of a pernicious cycle, one that already has led to trouble for the cabinet. The Office of the Inspector General’s report on Hardin County’s DCBS office described case workers who acted unilaterally in ways that weren’t beneficial to children or their families.
At least a dozen instances of misconduct were documented in the report. Parental rights were terminated, adoptions were fast tracked and not even grandparents were privy to court proceedings. At least one child was placed somewhere he shouldn’t have been and died as a result.
But the biggest shock came after the report was released. There was no prosecution of DCBS employees. They weren’t even fired. The public was told the workers had been reassigned to other positions, but state law (again) ensured that the specifics were not made public.
Isn’t it possible that one or more of those reassigned social workers ended up in Wayne County?
Can it get worse? You bet. Conceivably courts could use the proposed review panels to keep Court-Appointed Special Advocates out of the loop. These volunteers have one mission: Protect the interests of the children they represent. Locally, family court judges are very accommodating of CASA representatives. But that is not always the case. Other courts, other judges operate behind those still-closed courtroom doors. The cabinet’s plan would add another lock to what already is the equivalent of a bank vault.
The National Institute on Children, Youth and Families in Louisville, under the direction of David Richart, issued a report that spurred the original OIG investigation.
When the OIG report was released, Richart was right on the money when he said the “hurdle” is to change attitudes of some social workers and their supervisors who “brandish their power more as law enforcement than agents of family services. … We need to have experts to come in and help change the culture in these offices.”
It’s a hurdle yet to be overcome. The cabinet’s proposal raises the bar even higher.

This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.