Archive for March, 2012

Sunshine Week: Press vigilant on child abuse records

 

The Richmond Register

March 12, 2012

Press leading efforts to open child abuse records

 

By Randy Patrick
Associated Press

 

The Todd County Standard, a weekly, has helped lead the fight for greater scrutiny of child abuse records.

FRANKFORT — A legal battle between Kentucky newspapers and the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services over access to child death records has created what Democratic Rep. Susan Westrom of Lexington called a “perfect storm” in a speech to a gathering of social workers at the state Capitol.

Westrom said she’s hopeful the attention brought by the press will result in greater transparency in child abuse investigations and legislative action to protect children.

The lawmaker praised the reporting of the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville.

“That’s the only thing I have seen open the eyes and ears of our legislators, and I’ve been fighting this issue for 12 years,” she said.

“I think it’s a new day,” she said. “I think this crisis that was really instigated by the honesty of the press has made all the difference in the world, and we will see changes because of this.”

Amy Dye, 9, of Todd County died after being beaten by her adopted brother.

The Associated Press is reporting on transparency issues in Kentucky in connection with Sunshine Week, which begins Sunday. It is an annual initiative to promote open government.

According to a report last December by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, 111 children died as a result of abuse or neglect between July 1, 2008 and June 30 of last year.

Amy Dye, a 9-year-old Todd County girl who was beaten to death by her adoptive brother in February 2011, was not included among the 18 counted last year because she was not killed by a custodial parent, according the cabinet.

The Dye case has been at the center of the controversy over whether the cabinet’s records involving child deaths and near deaths should be public.

The Todd County Standard, a weekly newspaper, sued the state to get the records, and on Nov. 3, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled that newspapers were entitled to all files involving children who died as a result of abuse or neglect in cases where the children had previous contact with the cabinet. The cabinet fought the ruling until December, when Gov. Steve Beshear announced that the files would be released.

The files showed the cabinet never did an internal fatality review after the girl’s death.

Jon Fleischaker, attorney for the Kentucky Press Association and co-author of Kentucky's Open Records and Open Meetings laws, is representing The Todd County Standard and The Courier-Journal in open records cases involving child abuse investigations by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.The governor, however, has defended the state’s efforts to keep some child abuse records closed. In an op-ed he sent to newspapers recently, Beshear said that the state is “not trying to camouflage the actions of the cabinet or its workers.”

“That information is already being provided and we will continue to do so. But increased openness has to be implemented in a consistent and thoughtful way that holds the best interests of the child as its paramount priority. That is our top and only concern,” the governor wrote. “There are very real consequences — sometimes unintended — to eliminating confidentiality.”

Jon Fleischaker, the attorney representing the Todd County Standard in the Amy Dye open records case and The Courier-Journal in another child abuse case, testified before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee in January, accusing the state of ignoring both state and federal judicial rulings.

Fleischaker said the cabinet claims it needs confidentiality to protect children. “But it hasn’t protected the children,” he told the committee.

In an interview Thursday, Fleischaker said that the press has played a major role, not only in exposing the cabinet’s performance and secrecy, but by fighting the issue in court.

“I think that’s a really important point,” he said. “Newspapers still have the power to battle these things by going public and writing stories and editorials, as well as by filing lawsuits.”

Fleischaker, who is a co-author of the state’s 1976 Open Records Act, said that what the newspapers’ reporting and the court case have shown is that the cabinet hasn’t always done a good job in investigating child abuse cases, and that it has covered up its mistakes.

“They always talk about protecting children, but in reality, they’re protecting themselves in these cases,” he said.

Earlier this year, the secretary of the cabinet, Janie Miller, resigned, and there has been increased legislative scrutiny of the cabinet’s performance.

Westrom’s House Bill 200 would create an external review panel on child fatalities and near fatalities and require that information about those cases be made public. She also has another bill, House Bill 239, that would allow judges to open family court proceedings to the public.

 

Note: To read this article on The Richmond Register’s website, click here.

 

To visit the Kentucky Open Government blog, click here.


 

‘A Humble Resilience’ — Governor’s prayer breakfast

The theme for the 47th annual Governor’s Prayer Breakfast, “A Humble Resilience,” was chosen before last week’s tornadoes claimed the lives of at least 22 people and injured more than 300 others in Kentucky, but it couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State opposed the Governor's Prayer Breakfast. AP photo.

At a gathering of hundreds at the Frankfort Convention Center Tuesday morning, Gov. Steve Beshear prayed for the victims of the storms that ravaged the state last Wednesday and Friday and for the first responders, volunteers and others who have been working to help them.

Beshear spoke about “the faith that inspires us to look out for others in these troubled times, the faith that has made this country great, and the faith that has made this state grow strong.”

He said that while visiting people in West Liberty, Salyersville and other communities over the weekend, he had seen that strength that comes from faith.

Before Beshear’s speech, Colmon Elridge, executive assistant to the governor, read the names of the 22 storm victims. He said Kentuckians have “stood strong and have stood united, knowing that as the song says, ‘We shall overcome.’”

Rabbi Marc Kline of Temple Adath Israel in Lexington read scripture from the Torah to remind listeners to “choose life.”

Gov. Steve Beshear's 2012 Governor's Prayer Breakfast.

“There are times when God seems so far away and removed from our lives, leaving us to struggle with overwhelming obstacles placed in our paths,” he said. But somehow, people have the resilience to appreciate the gift of life and know that amazing things happen when they “have enough faith to keep showing up.”

“This is proof enough that God is very present in this world,” he said.

The Rev. Alan Keiran, chief of staff for the chaplain of the United States Senate and a retired Navy chaplain, was the keynote speaker. He commended those who persevere in difficulties, and those who dedicate their lives to serving others, such as the soldier who kills a bomber, the firefighter who runs into a burning building to save a child, the helicopter pilot who pushes the limit to get a critically injured driver to a hospital, the teacher who spends her own money to buy supplies for her students, the inner city coach who helps his charges become scholars as well as athletes.

“The happiest people I know on this planet are the ones who live to be a blessing to others,” he said.

Following the keynote address, Beshear presented the William Cooper Faith and Community in Action Award to Leslie Robin, founder of the Spread-the-Love-a-thon, a teenage suicide prevention network.

West Liberty devastated by tornado

Note: Last night and this morning, I covered the story about the tornado that nearly destroyed West Liberty early Friday evening. This was the last version of the story I emailed to the Associated Press. This version wasn’t published, but parts of my earlier story were included in AP reports from around the state. — Randy Patrick

This photo by freelance photographer John Flavell of Morehead,who was working for the Associated Press, shows what West Liberty's City Hall looked like after the EF-3 tornado swept tore through Main Street Friday night.

WINCHESTER, Ky. — A tornado tore through the heart of West Liberty early Friday evening, shearing the roofs off some buildings and demolishing others, overturning vehicles and knocking down  electrical lines.

“It looks like a bomb went off,” said Paul White, a volunteer from nearby Powell County.

Endre Samu, a Kentucky State Police public affairs officer from Morehead who was at the command post in West Liberty at 5 a.m. Saturday, said he doesn’t know what time the tornado struck, but he got the call around 7:30.

Samu said the twister touched down around Ezel, near the Menifee County line, and made a 60-mile path of destruction that included Main Street in West Liberty.

“All of the downtown area was just devastated,” Samu said.

Steve Wright, a Red Cross volunteer, showed reporters cell phone pictures of what he said was the tornado, and he said it was close to his home at Ezel about 4:30 or 5 before it hit West Liberty.

Samu said Saturday morning there were three confirmed deaths in Morgan County, where West Liberty is located, and 75 injuries. He said patients were being removed from the Appalachian Regional Healthcare Hospital in Morgan County to other area hospitals.

Several witnesses said the hospital had been damaged.

At Morgan County High School, the Red Cross had set up an emergency center in the gym. Peter Burt, a Red Cross volunteer, said just before 5 a.m. Saturday that 52 people were staying there. An emergency generator was being used at the school to provide electricity and a grocery had donated food and bottled water.

Daniel Adkins of Madison County was at the Morgan County High shelter looking for his sister, Janice Banks.

“It’s just ridiculous,” he said. “Nobody knows nothing.”

Stephen Burt had been succeeded in locating his wife, Pam, at work, but was at the high school looking for his 23-year-old daughter, who was with him earlier that night when the storm struck and demolished the second story of his house.

“I was in it,” he said. “I had my daughter with me. I held onto her and got in the center of the house right next to a closet and was holding onto her, trying to stay in the closet, and it felt like I was getting sand-blasted on my back.”

Other shelters were set up at the Elliott County High School and the Rowan County Middle School, and people were being taken there by school bus, Samu said.

Samu said the storm knocked out electricity in West Liberty and mobile phone service in a wider area.

For several hours, police were not allowing most people, including some reporters, into the downtown area. Trooper Joe Zalone of the state police said it was because the fallen electrical wires and gas leaks created a safety risk.

Samu said emergency service providers from several counties were providing assistance to the state police and local law enforcement and emergency responders.

He said those who need assistance should contact the American Red Cross, and he asked that people not come to downtown West Liberty look at the damage because that would make it harder for emergency crews to look for the injured.

 

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