Governor Steve Beshear today signed into law House Bill 290, which establishes an independent review panel to investigate cases of child deaths and near-fatal injuries. The bill places in statute the Governor's initiative to ensure that child protection agencies meet the policies and standards expected in cases of child abuse and neglect.
The bill closely mirrors the executive order issued by Gov. Beshear in July 2012, retaining the original 17 members appointed by the Governor, while expanding the panel's membership by three.
"We all share the same goal of keeping our youngest citizens safe from harm, but sometimes abuse and neglect lead to tragic circumstances," said Gov. Beshear. "When that happens, we must take a hard look to see whether and how what we call "the system' broke down. House Bill 290 creates a permanent process to review those cases, so we can ask the right questions and make any appropriate changes in order to protect other children."
The independent 20-member panel will remain attached to the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet for staff and administrative purposes, with added oversight by the Program Review and Investigations Committee of the Kentucky General Assembly, which will conduct an annual evaluation of the panel, monitor operations and procedures and make a report of findings to the General Assembly.
"I hope one day we will live in a world where this panel is no longer needed, but to address today's problems, I am so honored to have been a part of seeing the passage of this bill. Families and children are first," said Rep. Tom Burch, of Louisville.
New members of the panel will include the commissioner of the Department for Public Health, who will serve as an ex officio, nonvoting member; a representative of the Community Mental Health Centers, to be selected by the Attorney General from a list of three names provided by the Kentucky Association of Regional Mental Health and Mental Retardation Programs Inc.; and a member of the Citizen Foster Care Review Board, selected by the chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court.
"The review panel is designed to gather and analyze information from multiple sources to aid the prevention of child abuse," said Judge Roger Crittenden, who serves as the panel's chair. "This legislation resulted from the work of many public-spirited Kentucky citizens and organizations and the continued support from Rep. Burch and Sen. Denton. And it was Gov. Beshear's Executive Order that was the catalyst that changed an idea into reality and formed the basic framework for a review panel that is already functioning."
"The establishment of this panel will now allow us to understand the role that all of us -- doctors, neighbors, CPS workers, law enforcement...everyone -- has in protecting our children," said Dr. Melissa Currie, chief medical director, University of Louisville Pediatrics-Forensic Medicine. "It demonstrates a long-term commitment to our children that we will learn everything we can from these heartbreaking cases in order to prevent future child fatalities and near-fatalities. We owe this to our kids."
"While we are sad we have to talk about child fatalities, it is a day to celebrate because we have taken a significant step toward prevention," said Jill Seyfred, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky. "With passage of this legislation -- the culmination of a lot of hard work and careful deliberations from all branches of government, child advocates and concerned citizens -- Kentucky joins other states who know there is much to gain from having a panel of experts look at each tragic child fatality."
House Bill 290 provides for unredacted case files to be reviewed by the panel members, who will be bound by confidentiality requirements. The bill also permits the panel to go into closed session to allow for open discussion while preserving the privacy of innocent individuals whose names are included in the files. This has been a matter of particular concern for a surviving child of a near-fatality and non-offending surviving family and household members of any child whose case is subject to the panel's review.
Members will continue to meet quarterly to review official records, case files, or information relating to child fatalities or near-fatalities and analyze the medical, psychosocial and legal circumstances of the child to identify conditions that contributed to the death or serious injury. The panel will recommend improvements to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the Department for Community Based Services and to any other public or private agencies involved with the family relating to protocols, practice, training or other protections to keep children safe.