Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Judge rails against state's handling of child-abuse records, Beshear's defense of cabinet

The judge who handled the case of 9-year-old Amy Dye, who was beaten to death last year by her adoptive brother, sent an op-ed piece to several newspapers criticizing Gov. Steve Beshear's move to back the Cabinet for Health and Family Services in its battle to prevent full disclosure of child-abuse death records.

"The publicity surrounding recent tragic deaths of children in Kentucky, and the now public shenanigans of the cabinet — caught lying about what it knew and when it knew it — have triggered a rare public anger," writes Circuit Judge Tyler Gill, left. "Openness should always be the rule where government is involved."

The Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal sued the cabinet last year to obtain records about children who died from abuse or neglect. Though Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled in three cases that files should be released, the cabinet long refused to do so. "Shepherd said that in cases of children killed or badly hurt, the public has a legitimate, overriding interest in access to information that could show how the cabinet performed its job of protecting children," reports Bill Estep for the Herald-Leader.

In an order issued Jan. 19, Shepherd ruled the cabinet could omit very limited information, including the names of children who are hurt but don't die and the names of people, such as teachers, who report suspected abuse. The cabinet has appealed, saying it should be allowed to redact more information than that. Since Shepherd's ruling, the cabinet has released the internal reviews of 85 cases in which children were hurt or died in 2009 and 2010, along with extensive case files — though it has redacted information it sees fit on all of the documents.

Gill rails against the cabinet's appeal. "Do not be misled," he writes. "The cabinet's appeal of the Franklin Circuit Court ruling is not a high-minded effort to protect the privacy of persons who report child abuse. It is to protect the cabinet."

Kerri Richardson, spokeswoman for Beshear, said Gill is wrong about the cabinet's motivations. If it meant to protect itself, it would not have released hundreds of pages of records. "The cabinet is not just protecting those who report child abuse," she told Estep. "The cabinet is trying to protect innocent victims of abuse or neglect and the innocent families of victims of abuse or neglect."

But, given his handling of Amy Dye's case, Gill sees it differently. "The people of Todd County are painfully aware of the likelihood that a multitude of reports of suspected abuse were made by teachers and school officials about Amy Dye in the years before her death, several of which may have been mishandled or misplaced. I seriously doubt any of those who made reports would have allowed fear for their personal safety to keep them from speaking out. Their fear was for Amy," he writes. (Read more)

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