Act Quickly to Protect Kids

This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Courier Journal on January 6, 2014. You can find it online, here.

ChildNurture_iconThe Courier-Journal’s Dec. 29 editorial on Kentucky’s “runaway cabinet” raised numerous questions about how the state can better protect children from dying due to abuse or neglect. We hope the editorial brought more than just questions, however. We want it to inspire the Beshear administration and the Kentucky General Assembly to take immediate and long-term steps to protect children.

It’s unfortunate that the administration has not applied lessons learned from other recent successes to the arena of protecting children. For example, Gov. Steve Beshear, Secretary Audrey Haynes and the Office of the Kentucky Health Benefit Exchange executed a nationally acclaimed model for setting up Kentucky’s health exchange that was required as part of the health reform law. Their work was characterized by transparency, creativity, smarts, efficiency and a citizen focus. Yet, that same governor, secretary and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services have not honored those same commitments in protecting children from dying as a result of abuse and neglect.

The critical issue of the Beshear administration around child fatalities due to abuse, as documented in Judge Phillip Shepherd’s ruling, is a lack of transparency. Along with the issues detailed in The Courier-Journal’s editorial, a lack of transparency continues to weaken efforts to protect children from dying at the hands of an abuser, and both of these are related to the External Child Fatality Panel which was established in the summer of 2012.

That panel is, in fact, an important measure to address systemic problems of child fatalities and prevent future deaths from occurring. The governor is to be commended for establishing the panel initially through an executive order, and the General Assembly showed genuine bipartisan leadership when it improved the panel’s protocols during the 2013 legislative session.

However, two hurdles remain if the panel is to tackle its important work with credibility.

The first hurdle is around where the panel does its work. Currently, the panel resides within the administration. We simply cannot ask this governor — or any governor — to be responsible for assessing his or her own performance in protecting kids from dying from abuse. Instead, Kentucky legislators must find a locus for the panel outside the administration. That change of locus will mean that the panel’s findings will carry the power of independence as part of a renewed commitment to transparency.

The second hurdle is to ensure the panel has the public’s trust. That can be enhanced by simply requiring panel members to sign a public disclosure around conflicts of interest. The public, the General Assembly and Kentucky’s kids deserve to know just who is charged with investigating these fatalities: Do panel members have — or have they had — linkages with the cabinet and, in fact, the executive branch? Have panel members had a role in campaign contributions with this or future administrations? That simple requirement of a publicly disclosed conflict of interest statement does not preclude anyone from serving on the panel, but it will increase the credibility of the panel’s findings. We will know clearly who is charged with protecting Kentucky’s kids, and that is a needed extra measure of transparency.

Some of the issues that The Courier-Journal’s editorial raised are endemic and complex, which certainly require action and may — realistically speaking — require some time to figure out. However, we as a commonwealth can take immediate steps around the transparency of the External Child Fatality Panel that will build credibility and better protect children.

We cannot allow legislators to think it’s typical or common when it comes to the “Amy Dyes” of Kentucky. Kentucky’s kids can and should expect legislative action to increase transparency among this administration to protect children in the immediate and to lay a framework for long-term protections in the future.

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