Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Lawmakers grill state officials at hearing on child abuse and records of it; one says health secretary should resign

Janie Miller, secretary for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, should resign, said one key legislator at a committee hearing yesterday. The frustration of Sen. Julie Denton (Lexington Herald-Leader photo) stemmed in part from the manner in which the cabinet has dealt with child abuse records.

"This cabinet treats everyone as an adversary," said Denton, a Republican from eastern Louisville and co-chair of the Interim Joint Health and Welfare Committee. "I'm tired of lies. I'm tried of deception. I'm tired of the tap-dance routine. I'm tried of the shroud of secrecy. We should be partners, not adversaries."

Denton spoke near the end of a committee meeting at which Pat Wilson, retiring commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, testified about a recently released report on child fatalities and near fatalities, as well as last week's public release of child-abuse records. Miller did not attend the meeting.

The report showed 18 Kentucky children died from child abuse or neglect in the past year, but did not include the names of the victims or the case of 9-year-old Amy Dye, who died at the hands of her adoptive brother. The release of child-abuse records has likewise been controversial, with the cabinet fighting the state's two largest newspapers, The Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader, in court for years to avoid having to do so.

Wilson said her department "wholeheartedly supports being open and being accountable," but asked legislators to consider the pitfalls of having too much information available to the public. "I've done this work, I've knocked on the doors, I've interviewed the people and I've been in the houses," she said. "Almost inevitably, the person that you're talking with, not so much the professionals but the family members, the neighbors next door, will say, 'If I tell you this, will you promise me no one ever will know I said it?' You know, up until now, (we've say yes) and that has been the hallmark of this department."

Since the release of records, Wilson said her staff has already told her "individuals are telling them, 'I don't think I want to talk to you.'" She added she worries about the safety of her staff, saying there are larger ramifications when details of near-fatalities become public in a small town or rural community. "If you can for a minute, think about how it's going to feel when you're that worker, knocking on the door of that house and you're saying to those individuals I'm here to help you," she said. "I think it's going to be very tenuous."

Wilson explained Amy Dye's case was not included in her report because she was killed by a sibling, not her custodial parent. Though the cabinet had been contacted twice by school officials who suspected Dye was being abused in the home, the suspicions had been deemed unwarranted, Wilson said. Nevertheless, records released after Dye's death "include a letter from the school nurse that lists six reports from school officials about suspected abuse or suspicious injuries to Amy," reports Beth Musgrave of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "However, only three of the reports are contained in the cabinet's file on Amy."

Before her death, three years passed in which the cabinet did not receive any complaints of Dye's well-being. "We did know her but we knew her in 2006 and 2007," Wilson said. "In 2008, 2009, 2010, there was no communication." Dye had reportedly been sent out of state in the years preceding her death, but Todd County School Supt. Michael Kenner said the school did not know what had become of her, since there was little communication with the cabinet. "We didn't even know if she was in school," he said.

Many legislators took issue with the omission of Dye from the report, with Sen. Joey Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville, asking "How many others were killed by siblings that's not in this report that we don't know about?"

Wilson said state law only requires the report to contain information about deaths or near deaths that occurred at the hands of the primary caregiver, but Rep. Susan Westrom took issue with that. "Nobody from the cabinet has ever come to us and said, 'You know what? We have a statute that is too confining. We are still not able to protect our children from even siblings. The only people we can protect them from is the caregivers, which leaves a gaping hole in the safety net.'"

Legislators also asked why the report, released earlier this month, was three months late. Wilson said she took full responsibility for the tardiness. "It wasn't what I thought it needed to be," she said. "It's late because I had to redo the report." (Read more)

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