Kentucky Child Welfare Failing to Review Some Child Death Cases, Governor Takes Action

By CR Staff

Derek Cooper was just two-years-old when his own father, Brandon Fraley, suffocated him to death. It’s been nearly two years since Brandon died, but Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health & Family Services (CHFS) has yet to complete a state-mandated internal review of his case. An investigative report by the Lexington Herald-Leader found even more missing reviews:

…state law mandates a review by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services in every case in which a child dies, or nearly dies, because of abuse or neglect and the cabinet “had prior involvement with the child or family.”

A Herald-Leader analysis of 41 child fatalities in 2009 and 2010 found at least six cases where the cabinet did not do an internal review even though there were previous reports involving the family before the child died.

The review system is in place to make sure CHFS examines its actions in such cases and identifies possible changes going forward. Child advocates in the state expressed worry that by not completing reviews, state officials may miss opportunities to improve:

“One of the reasons why they are so important is for systems change,” [executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates Terry] Brooks said of the internal reviews. “It’s like a coach looking at a game tape — you have to figure out what went right and what went wrong.”

In the case of nine-year-old Amy Dye’s death, CHFS argued that it had no grounds to conduct a review since its prior involvement with her family was with a sibling, and not Amy herself. The argument was rejected by Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd, who issued a scathing response:

“This case presents a tragic example of the potentially deadly consequences of a child welfare system that has completely insulated itself from meaningful public scrutiny,” Shepherd wrote last November.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has taken action by forming an external panel that will meet quarterly, review the cases and make recommendations. However, the need for CFHS to follow its own policies remains a concern for some:

State Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, who sponsored an unsuccessful measure to create an external child-fatality review panel earlier this year, said she was encouraged Beshear moved to create such a body. But the cabinet also needs to do good internal reviews, Westrom said.

“The cabinet for so long has hidden everything it could,” she said.