trans·par·ent [trans-pair-uh nt, -par-] , adjective

  1. Having the property of transmitting rays of light through its substance so that bodies situated beyond or behind can be distinctly seen.
  2. Admitting the passage of light through interstices.
  3. So sheer as to permit light to pass through; diaphanous.

“Transparency” is the word of the year in the world of child welfare in Kentucky. The word gets tossed around so easily among advocates and others interested in improving the “system”, especially when it comes to child abuse deaths. But what does this mean and how far are folks willing and ready to go? “Transparency” means different things to different people based on their lens. For some – “transparency” means full public access to any and all records without anything crossed out, and for some this means limiting the information allowed to be shared with the public and others tasked with monitoring the system.

Advocates and other observers have been struggling with how far to go as well. National advocates and experts say that the day has come that we err on the side of complete openness so we can learn from the mistakes, gaps in services, and inadequacies. The more we know about the system, the more we can learn and make changes. According to a national report: “In a democracy that has sensibly provided many checks for accused parents, we have only public disclosure and debate as a check on behalf of endangered children who are not protected.” Others say that caution is needed in what gets released. They argue that there are some individuals that need protection, such as the person that reported the child abuse to the authorities or the deceased’s siblings.

In working on preparing KYA’s opinion on this complex, gray issue, I have found that there is one thing most people can agree on – the need for the creation of an independent child abuse fatality panel that would have access to ANY AND ALL UNREDACTED information it needs to learn from fatalities. These panelists need all of the information to do their job right. If this body does its job effectively, it will be looking at system flaws and putting forth high quality, relevant recommendations to end child abuse fatalities. If the panelists only have access to limited information, they cannot do their job.

national report found that a more open environment is not only a smart goal, but actually leads to benefits for kids. The recent adoption of transparency measures in California lead to identification of system flaws (not just individual errors). These measures then lead to policy and practice changes that improved decision-making about when to remove a child from a dangerous situation. Abuse and neglect deaths are child welfare agencies’ most crucial cases, and it is often only through such cases that lawmakers and the public learn of systemic inadequacies in child welfare systems.

It is critical that the Kentucky legislature passes a bill in the 2013 legislative session to formally and permanently put in place this fatality review panel. It is also important that the legislation includes language that allows the panel members’ access to files about children killed by child abuse. These rules cannot be left for interpretation by the institutions that would possibly want to hide problems.  Codifying this will create a system of transparency that will result in practice and policy change, enforceability, and ultimately prevention of child abuse.