A New Day for Accountability and Transparency in Child Protection

I’m envisioning the days leading up to September 3, 2012 when – I predict — U of L will have simply clobbered the Cats in the first gridiron clash of the season. What are both coaching staffs and players doing? Film analysis. What went well and what went wrong in past games? What improvements can be made in practice schemes, starting lineups and play selection? In other words, both schools are trying to improve their on the field performance through a careful review.

The Governor’s recent Executive Order establishing a Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel – announced this Monday – gives us hope for a very similar kind of thorough analysis for Kentucky’s kids. It creates a formalized process in which hard questions can be asked and broad solutions for improvement can be forged. Most importantly, it moves the Commonwealth toward accountability, transparency and effectiveness in a system of child protection that has let far too many of our children down.

Child advocates have been calling for some kind of external review process for over a year. The Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children made that a seminal point of last year’s platform. The January Summit on Child Fatalities made external review a critical element of the recommendations the 200 participants sent to the Governor and legislative leaders. One form of external review had traction in the last General Assembly, but it was derailed by a Beshear vs. the Senate spat.

The Governor, Secretary Haynes and Commissioner James as well as Attorney General Conway and Justice Secretary Brown have put together a thoughtful and forward-looking plan. We are particularly encouraged by several important elements within the Executive Order that mirror national best practices. For example, the national experience confirms that these kinds of panels must guarantee autonomy. The facts that the Attorney General and key stakeholders will be appointing the members and chair of the panel and that the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet will administer the process lends credibility to the effort.

Another element that is aligned with national best practices is the multi-disciplinary membership of the panel. Child fatalities and near fatalities are not simply the purview of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Rather, this is a community problem which must be solved by the broader community. A diverse review panel will ensure broad and informed perspectives are at the table. The panel’s membership and operating principles must intentionally honor the need for the panel to be an independent voice.

Finally, the panel will be looking at cases through a bifocal lens. On one hand, it will focus on individual cases, which is the very least we owe to children who have died or nearly died from abuse. On the other hand, this review process – if implemented with fidelity – will take a good, hard look at the entire system. How do we build on what’s working and fix what’s not? That is the least we owe every Kentucky kid.

Let me be clear – the overall take-away from this Monday’s announcement about the panel is inordinately positive. But, there are two issues that demand attention, which if handled appropriately will enable the panel to realize its full potential. Conversely, if either is handled inappropriately, then the panel will be little more than a political shell game. The first issue is panel membership. There are already concerns about the panel membership and potential conflicts of interest bubbling up. When a significant number of the panel’s members represent organizations whose financial survival depends in part upon money from the very Cabinet they are to inspect, there is always a danger of pressure to pass the buck and ignore the facts. Let’s hope that the panel’s members have backbones of steel and hearts of compassion so that the review process is robust and objective.

The second issue is data. The Cabinet’s track record on data – in terms of timeliness, consistency, completeness and accuracy – is troubling. In conversations with Secretary Haynes, I have been impressed with her upfront acknowledgement that data credibility is a building block to better practice and policy. For the panel to do its work with relevance and impact, and for the public trust in the Cabinet to be re-built, data and reports have to meet the highest academic standards of research; allow for longitudinal comparison; and, be presented in a way that is as transparent as they are timely.

There is much work to be done. But Monday’s announcement gives advocates for children reason to hope that our state can get ahead of the tragedies that have beset the Commonwealth so we can focus on prevention rather than regret.

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