When we gathered with more than 200 advocates from across Kentucky at the Kentucky Summit to End Child Abuse Deaths last month, the group at large voted on four policy solutions that they asked Kentucky leaders to act on during 2012. The call to action includes: improving transparency and accountability of the Cabinet; increasing funds for proven and effective services such as START, CASA, HANDS, in-home services, and parent advocate programs; increasing funds for additional DCBS social workers and support; and, improving system collaboration among agencies involved in the child welfare system.

Charlie Baker, President/CEO Emeritus of the Buckhorn Children’s Foundation, and Kentucky Youth Advocates Board member explains the way he sees the current state of Commonwealth’s child welfare system, and what he thinks should be done to protect our children. You can also see the following op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader, here.

Fixing A Broken System

Just when it’s easy to be cynical about the degree of public compassion for those among us who are suffering, a tragedy informs the debate. The outpouring of concern over the death of Amy Dye has highlighted a genuine public compassion for abused and neglected children. We were all moved to read how 9-year-old Amy, apparently the long-suffering victim of horrific neglect, was brutally killed by her adopted brother.

Over the last few years, we’ve learned that Kentucky has one of the worst records in the nation in regard to the numbers of children who die from abuse. In this individual story of one little girl, we’ve learned that the state of Kentucky missed opportunities to intervene and possibly save her life. It took Amy’s death to galvanize our attention.

Her death has revealed that the system is broken. The state has failed to manage this whole system effectively and efficiently. For example, it’s common knowledge that in both Lexington and Louisville a concerned citizen may have to wait on hold for as much as an hour to make a referral of suspected abuse. The “hot line” is pretty cold.

As the public expressed its concern, members of the Legislature are also alarmed, and after a brief bout of seeming tone-deafness, Governor Beshear has recommended a budget increase for the state agency mandated to oversee protection and care of our children. He has also accepted the resignation of the Secretary who oversaw that agency.

It would be easy to just name a new Secretary and hope these concerns are behind us. However, this is a golden opportunity to find a better longer-term solution.

The Kentucky Legislature needs to create a new Cabinet of Child and Family Services, and in collaboration with the Governor, name a Citizens’ Board to hire and direct the CEO of that new agency.

With this initiative, two critical issues would be addressed. First, and most widely known, there is a genuine need for openness and transparency in such cases, especially when a child dies. In order to function properly, governmental agencies must be subject to the maximum amount of public scrutiny. Closed-door meetings and confidential records can too easily lead to unnecessary institutional protection, not needed change.

Secondly, Kentucky’s approach to child protection is badly in need of modernization. Currently, the state’s approach is often about expensive late-stage intervention via residential care and hospitalization, when what we need is a much stronger commitment to prevention and early intervention in abuse and neglect cases.

Two quick examples of these kinds of services:

Developmental Day Care can be a much more effective intervention for babies and toddlers than removal from a neglectful home and placement in temporary foster care. Young mothers, overwhelmed by poverty, can learn parenting skills while their children learn and grow as they should – safely.

In-home Intervention can educate and support young mothers who are struggling with their responsibility. This isn’t therapy by a professional Social Worker, but frequent visits by a woman with real experience in parenting. She doesn’t “tell” a young mother what to do, rather she “shows” them how – by working authoritatively along side the mother.

In my long career I’ve seen both of these interventions work wonders and make long-lasting changes in children’s lives. However, in Kentucky, as budgets have continued to shrink, the Cabinet pared away these kinds of early intervention services and spent their limited funds on expensive residential programs. Remember the oil filter commercial, “Pay me now, or pay me later.” We may save money in the short-term by eliminating preventative services, but in the long-term children return again and again to expensive treatment away from their families.

It is possible to address both the transparency and the modernization concerns with this one solution. While the staff of the new agency would remain state employees, leadership would be accountable to the public via a Board of concerned citizens.

At long last, the Legislature and the public would be able to get honest answers regarding budgetary and operational needs of the agency, and the new CEO would be free to plan and implement actions to address these needs over more than two years.

This would be a new day in child protection in Kentucky, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the new CEO found that one positive way foward would be to contract out many of the current services provided by the state. A partnership with our strong non-profit children’s agencies could create a more privatized and more accountable system. Amy’s tragic death has focused our attention. It’s past time for a change – our children deserve it!