Monday, December 19, 2011

Kentucky child-welfare officials draw sharp criticism from lawmakers

Written by Deborah Yetter

FRANKFORT, KY. — At a packed committee hearing, Kentucky legislators berated the state’s top child-welfare officials Monday for failing to accurately report child-abuse fatalities.

And one lawmaker called for the resignation of the cabinet secretary who oversees Kentucky’s child-welfare programs, saying the state was withholding information.

“It concerns me the cabinet appears to have the attitude that it does not have to comply with the law, and it does not have to comply with court orders,” said Sen. Julie Denton, a Louisville Republican who is co-chairman of the interim joint Health and Welfare Committee, adding that the cabinet is “is broken, has gone rogue and is shrouded in secrecy.”

During a contentious committee hearing, several lawmakers said changes may be needed in state law to ensure that officials more accurately report cases of children that result in serious injuries or death.

State officials issued a report earlier this month that said 18 Kentucky children died of abuse or neglect in the fiscal year that ended June 30 — though The Courier-Journal reported Sunday that at least eight others were omitted.

Among those left out was the case of 9-year-old Amy Dye, a Todd County girl who was beaten to death by her adoptive brother.

Three Todd County school officials told the committee Monday that the case constitutes proof that Kentucky’s most vulnerable children must be better protected.

“One thing we want to make sure of, Amy Dye’s life did count for something,” said Todd County School Supt. Michael Kenner, testifying before the committee.

Lawmakers on the committee posed a number of questions, including why Amy’s death and others like it weren’t included in the cabinet’s annual report of child deaths and serious injuries.

Kenner said school officials had repeatedly tried to alert cabinet officials to suspected abuse of Amy after the agency approved her placement in the adoptive home — but to no avail.

“We’re not reporting cases just to be reporting them,” said Kenner, who appeared with an assistant superintendent and the principal from South Todd Elementary, Amy’s school. “It hurts when we feel like the things we report are not being taken seriously.”

The school officials said that they heard nothing back from the cabinet, despite repeated calls to a phone line designated for such matters, and that they never knew the outcome of any investigations.

“Out information goes into some big dark hole,” Kenner said. “We never know what is happening.”

The purpose of Monday’s hearing was for cabinet officials to explain its annual report on child abuse and neglect fatalities, which it released Dec. 1 — three months past the deadline under state law.

But discussion of Amy’s death dominated the discussion, even though the cabinet did not include her in that report, arguing that it didn’t have to because she was killed Feb. 4 by her 17-year-old brother, not a parent.

A judge has rejected that argument as a misinterpretation of state law, as did several lawmakers Monday.

“I do think the General Assembly meant to have these kinds of cases included in this report,” Denton said.

Denton, accusing the cabinet of obstructing lawmakers and withholding information, demanded the resignation of secretary Janie Miller.

Denton noted that the cabinet missed the deadline for filing its annual child-abuse report and has continued a legal fight over disclosure of records in cases involving child abuse deaths and serious injuries long after Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd first ordered their release under open records law.

“I’m calling for the resignation of the secretary,” she said. “The buck stops with the secretary.”

Miller did not attend the hearing and through a spokeswoman declined to respond directly to Denton’s demand.

“I am very disappointed that Sen. Denton has resorted to a personal attack rather than deal with these very difficult issues,” she said in a statement.

Speaking for the cabinet on her last day of the job was Patricia Wilson, commissioner of social services, who has resigned.

Wilson described in general how the cabinet conducts child abuse investigations and reports fatalities from abuse and neglect. Amy’s death, she said, was not counted as an abuse death because the law requires the cabinet to report only those deaths caused by a parent, guardian or other person exercising custodial control.

And she stopped short of saying the cabinet failed Amy when she was asked by Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, whether “the system” failed her.

“No I don’t believe we violated any of our policies or practices,” she said.

Some lawmakers objected to that statement.

“If Amy Dye is cold in the ground, the system failed her,” said Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, a Lexington Republican.

Said Givens: “The death you are not counting is a death of neglect. We all need to prevent the next Amy Dye.”

Wilson said that because a sibling killed Amy her death was not included in the annual report, which lists 18 child deaths from abuse or neglect during the most recent fiscal year.

Shepherd already rejected that argument in a ruling last month, saying the death was abuse — or at a minimum — neglect by adults in the home who allowed the abuse.

“To be clear, a parent need not personally administer the fatal blow in order to be held responsible for abuse or neglect,” Shepherd said in his order that the cabinet must release its records related to Amy’s death.

State law, conforming to federal law, allows the disclosure of cabinet records in the event of a child death or serious injury from abuse or neglect.

Several lawmakers expressed skepticism about the cabinet’s refusal to count Amy’s death or other such deaths in its annual report of child abuse deaths.

Sen. Joey Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville, wondered how many other cases are not in the report.

“I want to know how many children are murdered or killed within the home by a parent or sibling,” Pendleton said.

The Courier-Journal reported Sunday that at least eight other child deaths were not included in the report — most in cases in which parents or caregivers were charged with abuse, neglect or murder. Midkiff took exception with that report, saying that child fatalities are reported “consistent with the statutes.”

Rep. Martha Jane King, D-Lewisburg, whose district includes Todd County, said after the hearing that lawmakers should act if the law needs to be clearer.

“It’s out responsibility to make sure that if there’s a loophole, we go ahead and address it,” she said.

Camille Dillingham, the principal at Amy’s school, said after the hearing that she hopes the girl’s death brings about some changes.

“She was a quiet girl, she was very loving,” Dillingham said. “She was a very good student.”


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