But this is not about shielding the system from scrutiny. We understand the need to be more transparent than in years past - in fact, I ordered such a paradigm shift in the Cabinet’s treatment of child abuse records as early as last fall.
We are not arguing for the right to camouflage the actions of the Cabinet or its workers. That information is already being provided and we will continue to do so.
There are very real consequences - sometimes unintended - to eliminating confidentiality.
As I described earlier, lack of protection for those reporting abuse or neglect could have a silencing effect on those who would bring these conditions to authorities.
But there are other consequences. For example
-Police and prosecutors routinely share information with the Cabinet to help it determine whether children need to be removed from a home for their safety. That information might include witness interviews, forensic evidence, autopsy results and statements by an
accused immediately following a tragic event.
The Court’s ruling does not exempt that information from disclosure -even if the case is ongoing. Consequently, prosecutors will likely begin withholding that information rather than risk jeopardizing their ability to pursue criminal charges. As a result, the Cabinet will lack crucial information it needs to decide whether to intervene to protect children.
-The ruling also doesn’t shield from disclosure information related to voluntary or involuntary termination of parental rights, and to a subsequent adoption. As a result, a parent who previously lost
custody of a child via court order will be able to track down the child and the family who adopted that child. The result could potentially be tragic. And it certainly will stymie the Cabinet’s ability to find people to adopt abused or neglected children.
-The court ruling does not exempt from disclosure the names of parents, guardians or custodial parties found by the Cabinet to have abused or neglected a child but later exonerated once a hearing on the charges was held.
Publicizing their names before their cases are fully heard is a violation of due process required by federal law, and it directly harms them and their families. The Cabinet must make decisions in a short timeframe, and often errs on the side of caution. Parents or others accused should have the right to defend themselves before they’re punished. Such consequences are indicative of the complex social, emotional and legal issues that surround cases of child abuse and neglect. The ability of social workers and others to gather information has a direct impact on their ability to make critical decisions regarding the safety of vulnerable children and their families.
In the aftermath of my directive requiring more transparency, I have asked the General Assembly to give these issues a public airing. The legislature should amend state law in a way that ensures our child
welfare system is effective and eliminates the ambiguities that led to recent court rulings. The General Assembly should set the policy on this issue, not the courts.
In the meantime, however, the Cabinet, its attorneys and I will continue to battle in court in the best interests of our children - regardless of what criticism comes our way.