Thursday, March 29, 2007

Governor: Children Are Your Occupation

Where is our Governor? Thirty one days, three children dead? Where is his statement? Where is a commission? Where is a special investigation? Where are new safety measures? Governor Fletcher, society survives via our children. If you cannot protect them, why serve or seek re-election?

From the Lexington Herald-Leader:

When 2-month-old Brianna Brown died yesterday morning, she became the third Central Kentucky child in 31 days to die of injuries apparently caused by abuse. Parents have been charged with murder in the deaths of all three.

The deaths illustrate what many advocates and some in state government have known for years: The number of kids in Kentucky who die as a result of abuse and neglect has been increasing. "This isn't just a blip on the radar," said Jill Seyfred, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky. "There are children in Kentucky who are subjected to fear every day."

Caleb Bishop, 1 month old, died Feb. 25 after suffering blunt-force trauma to the head. Fourteen days later, Michaela Watkins, a chatty 10-year-old who dreamed of being a cheerleader, died in a Winchester apartment. Brianna's death at University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center came 16 days after Michaela's.

In one of the three deaths it is clear the state had been involved in the child's care. Family members have said the Watkins family had had several visits from social workers. Statistics show that the number of children who died as a result of abuse and neglect in Kentucky has nearly doubled from 2000 to 2004. And the number of children who have died while being monitored by state social workers has also increased. In 2004, the last year for which national figures are available, Kentucky ranked fifth among all the states in the number of children who died as a result of abuse and neglect.

Child advocates and state legislators say the three deaths in such a short time should be a wake-up call that the state needs to devote more resources to child protection. Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said advocates and some members of the legislature have said for years that child protection has been underfunded. Yesterday, one state lawmaker said she would push in the 2008 legislative session for more investigation into abuse and neglect deaths. It's not enough for the cabinet to do an internal investigation if a child dies while under its care, said Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo. There should be outside scrutiny, she said.

The cabinet investigates all deaths due to child abuse. Palumbo, D-Lexington, says she will file legislation requiring the cabinet to release a summary of any internal review conducted in response to abuse or neglect that results in a fatality or near fatality. Palumbo filed similar legislation in 2004, but it was not passed. She also intends to draft legislation that would allow lawmakers on the Health and Welfare committee to review cases twice each year to track the decisions social workers make. "I want to go as far as we can go. As a policy maker, I want to talk to social workers about what we can do," Palumbo said.

Other advocates applauded Palumbo's efforts, saying more oversight is needed. "I would like for more outsiders to look at how these children die, people and agencies who don't have a contract with the cabinet," said David Richart, executive director of the Louisville-based National Institute on Children, Youth and Families. "These incidents go underground by virtue of confidentiality. It erodes public confidence."

From 2000 to 2004 in Kentucky, child fatalities due to abuse more than doubled -- from 16 to 36. During that time there was an increase in fatalities in which the children had prior contact with state social workers, from 16 to 25. Those numbers decreased slightly in 2005, and cabinet officials say the preliminary numbers in 2006 are lower than those in 2004. The cabinet has launched a host of initiatives to cut the number of abuse and neglect deaths in Kentucky, including a program with the non-profit Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky. Also, more than 700 physicians and other medical personnel have been trained to spot signs of abuse and neglect, Seyfred said. Better training in spotting abuse may be behind some of the uptick in both reports of abuse and investigations into child deaths, child advocates say. The number of reports of suspected abuse and neglect increased from about 44,000 in 2000 to 65,000 in 2006, although the number of substantiated cases remained flat.

Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville started a series of child abuse prevention programs and an educational seminar for medical professionals to help spot abuse. Dr. Stephen Wright, professor of pediatrics at the University of Louisville and medical director at Kosair, said that about four years ago the hospital saw about a child a month who died as a result of abuse or neglect. "We noticed of the kids who came here ... almost half of them had seen a physician or some other health care professional within a couple of weeks prior to them having this catastrophic event," Wright said.

Child advocates hope others, not just police or medical professionals, will watch out for children's well-being. "If there is any hope that can emerge from a tragedy, maybe these kinds of headlines can make these kids the focus of the governor's race rather than a forgotten issue," Brooks said. "Kids should be a topic of conversation of every candidate."

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