Monday, November 14, 2011

‘Culture of Secrecy” hid death of child in state welfare system - Kentucky

By Mike Farrell

Now we know why Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd declared a “culture of secrecy” exists at the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

That secrecy was necessary to hide from the public the state’s failure to protect a child who was bludgeoned to death.

“This case presents a tragic example of the potentially deadly consequences of a child welfare system that has completely insulated itself from meaningful public scrutiny,” Judge Shepherd wrote in the most recent decision over state records in the death of a child.

In a 19-page decision he issued Nov. 7, the judge detailed what he referred to as a “systematic breakdown” of the state’s child protective services, which contributed to the death of a nine-year-old Todd County girl in February.

The judge made it clear the cabinet failed to fulfill its responsibilities in this case. “(T)he Cabinet’s records document an alarming history of misfeasance, at best, or malfeasance, at worst, on the part of the Cabinet in addressing allegations of abuse and neglect” in this case.

Amythz Dye was murdered on Feb. 4 outside her home by her 17-year-old brother, Garrett Dye, who pleaded guilty last month. She had been bludgeoned. According to the court’s decision, she had been shoveling gravel outside the house on a cold night as punishment for stealing pudding and juice from a friend’s lunchbox at school.

The girl had been adopted by Kimberly Dye after she had been removed from her biological home in another state as a result of physical and sexual abuse. She was the great-niece of Kimberly Dye, who was then divorced and living with her two sons. The cabinet had approved the adoption, even though other relatives had indicated interest and the cabinet had previously confirmed the abuse of one of her sons by the father.

Judge Shepherd reported that the cabinet had received eight separate reports of suspicions that the girl was being abused.

• The first report in the cabinet’s file was that one of her two older brothers had thrown her across the bed and kicked her, leaving 5-inch bruises on her hips. The cabinet’s records indicate the report involved a “sibling altercation” and did not meet the criteria for investigation.

• One week later, the school nurse reported that the girl said the brother had been hitting her and knocked her off the bed. This incident was viewed much as the first, and after the cabinet talked to the mother, it took no further action.

• About a month later, the school nurse called again to report the girl had thumb prints on her face and her skin was peeling. She said the injuries were caused by the same brother, and that the mother had warned her she would be spanked if she told anyone. The mother told a cabinet worker the girl had been playing in gravel and rubbed it on her face. The cabinet record shows no further follow-up.

At the same time, the school nurse wrote a letter to the cabinet detailing six referrals of suspected abuse of the girl she already had made. She asked that a cabinet worker come to the school to talk to the girl.

Apart from that letter, Judge Shepherd said the cabinet’s records do not document three of those six referrals:

• Two weeks before the first incident documented in the cabinet’s records, a guidance counselor told the cabinet the girl had bruising on both thighs and said she had been hit by her brother.

• Between the second and third report in the cabinet’s documents, the school nurse reported the girl said “her private parts hurt” and she felt a burning sensation when she urinated.

• The next week, the same school nurse reported the girl had fingerprint bruises on both arms, which she blamed on the brother grabbing her and then shooting her with a BB gun.

• Three weeks later, the cabinet received a report that the girl was being hit in the head with a shovel by the brother. The mother told a cabinet worker the girl had hit her head on a desk. The only documented action was to refer the family to an outside agency.

• Another report came several months later. The girl said the brothers had hurt her, her eye was bruised and swollen, and she was covered in bites. Kimberly Dye told a cabinet worker that the girl had tripped and fallen while running, the same story the brothers told. The girl also was interviewed and she said she had fallen and hit her face on the ground. The cabinet concluded as a result of this information that the family did not need any services.

The court decision does not document further reports, meaning about three and a half years elapsed between the final referral reported to the cabinet and the girl’s murder. We know all of this only because the Todd County Standard sued the cabinet for the records, and in ruling for the newspaper, the judge laid out the story.

This decision was the third open records decision Judge Shepherd has issued against the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and the second in four days. The cabinet has refused to release records related to the deaths of children who were under its supervision, citing a federal requirement of confidentiality. In all three lawsuits filed by newspapers seeking the release of those records, Judge Shepherd has ruled federal laws do not require that confidentiality when a child dies.

“The Open Records Act is the only method available by which the public and the legislature can obtain information regarding the systematic breakdown of our child protective services that contributed so directly to this child’s death,” Judge Shepherd wrote.

So where is the public outrage? Perhaps citizens aren’t outraged because the cabinet has succeeded in keeping the public in the dark about its failures.

A young girl who had been abused in her biological home is placed into another home by the Kentucky cabinet, which then fails to recognize, despite multiple reports, that she is being abused again.

Why isn’t Gov. Steve Beshear demanding answers? Where is his message of assurance to the citizens of the state that changes will be made swiftly to ensure children who are being supervised by the cabinet will be protected?

Why does he allow the cabinet to continue this “culture of secrecy,” hiding behind a statutory requirement that exists only in its excuses?

The Courier-Journal reported after a 2009 investigation that nearly 270 Kentucky children had died of abuse or neglect during the past decade — more than half in cases in which state officials knew of or suspected problems.

The General Assembly has a responsibility to assess where the failure lies. Is it training? Is it staffing levels? Are the cabinet’s procedures defective? Is the cabinet simply too big to manage all of its responsibilities? Whatever the contributing factors, something is wrong when eight reports of suspicious injuries fail to bring a troubled family into the cabinet’s program of services.

The cabinet clearly has a difficult job to do with limited resources, trying to protect so many abused and neglected children. Nevertheless, its unwillingness to be accountable to citizens of this state by responding to open records requests is troubling. This cabinet and the administration, regardless of who is in the governor’s mansion, must be accountable to the public. It’s clear from the three lawsuits and the recent string of open records appeals that the cabinet does not understand how important it is that their work be subject to public scrutiny.

Perhaps an independent commission should be established to investigate the death of every child who is a victim of abuse or neglect. That would mean the commission would need staff, subpoena power, and be required to publish its findings and make recommendations.

Being a child protection service worker is a difficult, demanding and sometimes dangerous job. Most of those workers do an admirable job of protecting children and steering troubled parents and families to available assistance. We owe them our appreciation and support.

But the problem is with the officials who run the agency and who resist reasonable requests by citizens and the media for information and about individual cases of abuse and neglect.

All of our children deserve to be protected. We all must do more to ensure their safety and to demand that the state protect each one. And we must demand that the cabinet is accountable to the public for its actions. The little we know at this point we know only because of the work of three newspapers, the attorney general’s office and Judge Phillip Shepherd.

Mike Farrell is the director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky and an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications. He was a journalist for nearly 20 years at The Kentucky Post. His views are his own and not those of the university or of KyForward.

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