Critics of Kentucky’s child welfare system say the recent release of over 80 child abuse records by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services is just the beginning.
The child welfare system was at its best when the Cabinet for Families and Children was separate from the Cabinet for Health Services, said Anita Barbee, professor at University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work. She has also consulted with the cabinet for 20 years.
In 2004 the agencies consolidated, and that’s when the cabinet began to significantly struggle, she said. In recent months the cabinet has been criticized for lacking accountability and several key pieces of information were redacted from records a judge recently ordered be released.
The cabinet redacted names and in some cases age identifiers from the documents.
“If you hide the fact that there are problems and mistakes in the system that also hides the need for the resources,” Barbee said.
It’s been a while since Barbee has seen positive changes in cabinet accountability and being transparent may actually help the cause, she said.
“So one way to look at this job from a commissioner’s level or secretary of the cabinet would be to say we’re going to let you see everything and see what the problems are and then elicit the help from the legislature and the community to pressure for the resources that are needed to actually do the work properly,” Barbee said.
Lawmakers have scheduled at meeting in Frankfort next week to discuss issues surrounding the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Changes to the cabinet have been supported before. In 2006 case worker Boni Frederick was killed while performing her duties. Former Gov. Ernie Fletcher signed a law improving some safety measure for workers and created a panel to review cabinet’s procedures.
“And there were all these promises made to increase the workforce and to increase safety for workers and to ensure that the system was properly put together. Those promises weren’t kept. It was unfunded mandate,” said Barbee.
The downturn in the economy and cuts to the department are also reasons why resources have vanished and case workers are overworked, she said.
These are common issues with struggling child welfare systems, said Marcia Robinson Lowery, executive director of the advocacy group Children’s Rights.
The organization has sued the child welfare systems in around 18 states; four cases are active in prejudgment and have yet to be decided, eight cases’ court orders are being monitored, and six cases have been successfully closed.
Aside from increasing social workers and decreasing case loads, other recommendations include redirecting money systems already have to be better used within the agency, said Lowery.
A lot of the bad practices end up costing the state more money, she said.