Kentucky Politics

Lawmakers say they want to do more to prevent child abuse in Kentucky after years of troubling reports ranking the state as one of the worst for child mistreatment.

The legislature’s Oversight and Investigations Committee met Thursday to discuss findings and recommendations from the state’s Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel, which, as it does annually, released another report this year detailing substance abuse and mental health issues as leading drivers of child abuse in the state.

Melissa Currie, a doctor at Norton Children’s Hospital and a member of the panel, said since the panel’s inception 10 years ago, the state hasn’t seen a drop in abuse cases.

“No, absolutely not, we’re not seeing a huge drop in the numbers. And we’re seeing worse and worse cases,” Currie said.

According to the latest report—which includes data from 2019—substance abuse was one of the main factors in the most severe abuse, taking place in 18% of cases reviewed by the panel.

Caregivers had mental health problems in 44% of cases and 65% of cases had previously been involved with the state’s social services agency, the Department for Community Based Services.

According to a federal study of child abuse released earlier this year, Kentucky ranks first in the nation for child mistreatment (though the study cautions against making comparisons because states have different reporting requirements and abuse laws).

Rep. Jason Nemes, a Republican from Louisville and chair of the committee, said the state needs to do a better job funding the fatality review panel.

“We can actually fund and make sure you get the dollars you are appropriated and maybe fund extra workers, case workers, investigators,” Nemes said.

Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican from Benton, said the state needs to do more to support social workers.

“I think we can all agree our system in DCBS is inadequate. Simply because they don’t have the staff. That is an issue, an entire issue unto itself and we are failing in that area,” Carroll said.

He also recommended requiring drug testing of parents in all child fatality and near fatality situations.

The panel consistently makes recommendations like expanding family drug courts that put parents through year-long drug rehab, job training and other programs without relying on incarceration.

But state funding is always tight in cash-strapped Kentucky. The only family drug courts in the state right now are a privately-funded program in Jefferson County, and a federally-funded program in Clay County.

Supporters of the Jefferson County program say it will run out of money this year, and the Clay County program is funded for three years.

The panel also recommended the legislature look into educating people or passing laws that would limit children’s access to firearms in the household. Legislators consistently refuse to consider a bill requiring people to lock up firearms when they have kids in the house.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.