The following letter was printed in the Courier-Journal.
You could not open The Courier-Journal last winter without recoiling at the latest tragedy and cover-up around child fatalities due to abuse and neglect.
A turning point for me came on a snowy February Saturday morning when 300 Kentucky citizens from 80 counties came together around a summit, sponsored by Kentucky Youth Advocates, about this issue. That morning, there was genuine outrage as the Cabinet for Health and Family Services leadership publicly covered up its mistakes and simply avoided responsibility for Kentucky’s children who were dying at the hands of an abuser.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Step Up for Kids Conference in Louisville and was encouraged to hear the new leadership at the cabinet begin to talk about accountability and transparency in some detail. Perhaps most importantly, those new leaders at least showed they cared!
This is an issue that is in a better place than it was a year ago, but it is not in a place where we can be content. In many ways, we as a state are in that uncomfortable “good news and bad news” spot.
The good news is that the cabinet FINALLY met its legal obligation and published its required annual child fatality report on time. The bad news is that the report continues to be marred by data that is inconsistent and incomplete. For instance, the public does not know how many cases are “pending,” but the cabinet does. This number has fluctuated over the years and could give us a more accurate understanding of how many kids died or nearly died because of child abuse.
Partners from the Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children and the Kosair Charities Campaign to End Child Abuse are calling upon the cabinet to develop a data dashboard to share with public in a transparent manner. Perhaps even more importantly, we want the cabinet to commit to a set of metrics that will remain consistent and unchanging for at least a decade. When that dashboard becomes operational, every Kentuckian can compare apples to apples and we can track progress in protecting our children.
More good news is that Gov. Steve Beshear through an executive order established an external child fatality review panel. That was the primary recommendation that emerged from the February summit so as a child advocate, I applaud the governor’s move. The bad news is that simply appointing a fatality review panel is not enough.
We have to ensure that all members of the panel are not beholden to state government for their financial livelihood. We have to guarantee that the panel is not only external but also independent and that independence demands freedom from entangling alliances with state authorities. Furthermore, we have to ensure that the deliberations of that panel are transparent. We cannot afford a “star chamber” process where conversations and analyses are closed to citizens, journalists, parents and advocates.
More good news is that cabinet leadership is talking — and talking a lot — about fidelity to best practices. The bad news — and this is a common lament — is that best practices are going to cost real money. We have to reinvent some pretty unexciting processes, like data collection and input mechanisms. Those are not the kind of ideas that captivate the imaginations of our lawmakers and they certainly don’t lend themselves to ceremonies where oversized checks are presented to local voters! But those management improvements are exactly where we need to begin. Our state’s leaders need to make the hard choice to invest in the “innards” of the system to protect our children with more efficiency and efficacy.
The kind of social crises we experienced around child fatalities never stay static. Instead, they get better or they get worse. In other words, this particular issue will not linger in the good news-bad news stage. Will it become bad news again or can the commonwealth finally invent a good news future for our youngest citizens? The answer depends.
Can we create a system where data is trusted and can be used to guide improvements? Will we take the original work behind the external review panel and make adjustments so that group is as independent as it is trusted? Will our elected leaders find the spine to at last admit that protecting kids on the cheap is not protecting kids at all and make the tough decisions to invest in systems that may not excite but have to work if kids are going to be saved?
Demand that your state representative and your state senator and your governor begin to answer those questions. There is no better time to be asking important questions than right before Election Day!
Mr. Cantrell is a child advocate who recently retired as executive director of Bellewood Home for Children. — Editor