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ISSUE: Child death review panel
OUR VIEW: Toothless and blind
Gov. Steve Beshear’s announcement in July that he would form a panel to review cases of child deaths and near-deaths handled by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ Department of Community Based Services was good news and offered hope that, at long last, the department would be thoroughly reviewed in a way that would restore public confidence in the DCBS and its staff.
But misgivings set in when the particulars of the panel were announced.
The appointed members of the Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel — many of whom are administration or cabinet insiders — are tasked with recommending how children in Kentucky can be better protected.
They’re not expected to fix anything personally.
Most concerning is that because the panel is subject to open meetings laws, its members only will review redacted records. They won’t see what the cabinet doesn’t want them to. There is no overarching review.
Beginning with a 2005 investigation by the Office of the Inspector General that found widespread systemic mishandling and abuses in the Lincoln Trail DCBS office, to recent court battles to open records related to deaths of at least three children under the cabinet’s jurisdiction, it has become clear one of the major problems with DCBS is its lack of transparency.
The cabinet claims state law allows it to withhold records, and provides the wherewithal to repeatedly fight open records challenges in court.
Other state laws keep observers — media outlets and the public — out of courtrooms where life and death decisions about children are adjudicated.
State laws also protected the jobs of caseworkers the inspector general’s inspection identified as playing roles in local cases. It also protected them from prosecution and continues to prevent the public from knowing where those caseworkers subsequently were assigned.
Panel member Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, said, “We can’t start with one hand tied behind our back. If we can’t get full reports or documents, you don’t know the whole story. How do we know that those documents aren’t critical to knowing how the system broke down?”
The veil of secrecy and its perpetuation through this review is a disservice to the public and DCBS employees who, despite crippling caseloads, act in the best interest of children.
It continues to beg the question: Who is being protected — DCBS and some of its employees or Kentucky’s at-risk children?
Are there systemic problems in DCBS or just a few bad apples and unfortunate circumstances? In its current structure, this blind, toothless panel can never tell us.
This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.