Child abuse findings voided secretly in Kentucky
Grabbing the teenage girl from behind, Kevin Watson, a security monitor for Jefferson County Public Schools, slammed her head to the table, opening a gash that splashed blood on the girl's clothes, the table and the floor, according to accounts of witnesses at Breckinridge Metropolitan High School.
As he forced the girl's head back to the table, Watson was overheard taunting her.
"How do you like that," he asked the girl, then 17, according to another school security monitor who witnessed the September 2015 altercation.
Yet, despite a state Child Protective Services investigation that substantiated the incident as child abuse, Watson has a clean record with the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, whose social workers issue findings in cases of alleged child abuse or neglect.
Using a secret process that not even victims may know about, Watson, exercising his right to a confidential appeal, was able to overturn the cabinet's child abuse finding against him. That kept his name from being added to an official list — also confidential — known as the state Child Abuse and Neglect Registry that can restrict adults from some occupations or activities, such as child care, working or volunteering with youths or serving as foster parents.
And data obtained from the cabinet by the CJ show Watson's case is not unique.
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Of the hundreds of people who file such appeals each year, more than half are successful in overturning adverse findings through the same cabinet whose workers substantiated the abuse or neglect, according to the records. Appeals between 2012 and 2015 ranged from several hundred to nearly 1,000 a year, with anywhere from 56 percent to 66 percent being reversed or otherwise changed in favor of the person filing the appeal.
Because all proceedings are shielded by secrecy under Kentucky's strict confidentiality laws regarding child abuse and neglect, it can't be determined how the cabinet makes such decisions or who the cabinet notifies when someone appeals a case, including the alleged victims. Watson, who still works at Breckinridge, did not respond to requests for comment.
JCPS officials say they can find no record they were ever notified of Watson's appeal or offered a chance to submit the school system's investigation, which also substantiated witness accounts. Amari Walker, the injured student, never knew of the appeal or got a chance to participate, said her lawyer, Thomas Clay.
On July 6, 2016, the cabinet issued a single-page order with no explanation, reversing the abuse finding against Watson, according to records from his JCPS personnel file.
The cabinet rejected the Courier-Journal's request for further records of Watson's appeal, saying confidentiality laws protect its records of such proceedings.
Steve Davis, chief of staff at the cabinet, said the cabinet by federal law is required to offer people a chance to appeal findings of child abuse or neglect and state law requires that the records be kept confidential.
And while the law requires the cabinet to notify parties of an appeal, that generally applies to the person filing the appeal and the cabinet officials defending the findings, he said. Davis said he knows of no requirement in the law that victims or others with an interest in the case be notified.
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Julie Locke, a Louisville mother, was shocked to discover that her ex-husband successfully overturned a substantiation of child abuse or neglect related to their two daughters. The substantiation stemmed from a 2014 finding by the cabinet that he had put the girls at risk during an incident in which he accosted Locke in front of them at a birthday party, grabbing, threatening and cursing her, according to a domestic violence petition.
"I never knew he filed an appeal," Locke said. "I never knew they were even entertaining an appeal. For me not to have been notified is bizarre."
Locke said that based on the cabinet's reversal of its finding, a judge — over her objections — granted her ex-husband additional visits with their daughters.
Clay, who also represents Locke, said he thinks it's time for such secrecy to end, that the state needs to revamp the laws and regulations that govern such proceedings.
"I don't get it," Clay said. "They're concealing information about the very people they are trying to protect. I don't know how they think they are serving the public by keeping this stuff under wraps."
Walker, now 19, recently filed a lawsuit against JCPS and Watson. She said she still is in disbelief over the incident that left her with blood pouring down her face and required stitches.
"It was crazy," said Walker, who now attends Doss High. "It happened so fast."
Davis said he can't comment on individual cases because of the confidentiality provisions of the law.
In Kentucky, when someone appeals a substantiation of abuse or neglect, the case is assigned to a cabinet lawyer who serves as a hearing officer and typically holds a hearing, takes testimony and makes a written recommendation to the cabinet secretary on whether to uphold or reverse the finding. The secretary makes the final call.
Davis said the cabinet relies on the judgment of the hearing officers and that cabinet officials don't like to "tinker" with a case because people filing appeals are entitled to an impartial hearing.
"We expect them to issue sound decisions," he said.
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Some cases are settled through agreement of the parties or dismissed for various reasons without a hearing, according to the cabinet.
Dr. Melissa Currie, a pediatric forensic expert at the University of Louisville who occasionally is called as a witness at such hearings, said they tend to be informal, with participants seated around a table and the hearing officer in charge. She said she doesn't know how the state reaches a decision.
"I don't know how the system works," she said. "There doesn't seem to be any transparency."
Currie said she has testified at hearings that involved what seemed to be obvious child abuse or neglect, only to find out later that the substantiation was overturned.
"There are cases that seem very clear-cut and they are overturned and we don't know why," Currie said.
Often, a lawyer represents the person filing the appeal. Currie said she's heard lawyers make arguments that don't address whether abuse or neglect actually occurred but rather, appear to seek sympathy for the client.
" 'This is going to ruin this guy's life, he won't be employed,' " Currie recalled one lawyer arguing. "Of course, that should have no bearing whatsoever."
State law says that the hearing officer should allow only "the evidence on the record" and exclude anything that is irrelevant or immaterial.
Acena Beck, a lawyer with the Children's Law Center in Covington, said she had represented people at such hearings when she worked as a legal aid lawyer in Northern Kentucky. Generally, the hearings are held in the county of the person filing the appeal, she said, and how they are run depends on who's in charge.
"It can vary greatly depending on which hearing officer you get," Beck said. "There's no consistency."
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Currie said she worries about the effect on social workers tasked with investigating difficult, complicated cases and reaching conclusions, only to have them overturned by the same cabinet that employs them.
"When a finding gets reversed, it undermines the investigation," Currie said. "It's demoralizing. They do all this work, they try to protect the kids."
Locke said she's still trying to find out how her ex-husband was able to reverse a finding against him.
His lawyer, Elizabeth Pepa, declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of the process.
"My client respectfully wishes for it to remain that way," she said.
Locke provided the CJ with a copy of the Nov. 19, 2014, letter from the cabinet substantiating abuse or neglect, along with the 2014 domestic violence order she obtained against her ex-husband.
Locke said she was astonished when his lawyer in mid-2015 announced the finding had been reversed following an appeal she knew nothing about.
"How does anyone get a fair hearing if both sides are not represented?" Locke asked.
Even more disturbing to Locke is the lack of any records of the appeal or an official explanation.
As a parent, Locke is entitled to confidential records involving her children of any hearing but when she and her lawyer asked for them, they found there were none. A cabinet lawyer told her the case "was settled outside a hearing," she said.
When they asked for records of the settlement, they received nothing, Locke said.
Seeking an explanation, Locke and Clay, her lawyer, said they met in December with cabinet officials who said they would look into it.
They are still waiting for an explanation, Locke and Clay said.
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Some argue that at a minimum, the state's confidential registry of people who have substantiated findings of abuse or neglect against them should be open to the public.
Among those arguing that case is state Rep. Dennis Keene, who is sponsoring a bill this year on behalf of a constituent whose infant daughter was injured by a babysitter in 2014.
Keene, a Democrat from Campbell County, said his House Bill 47 would require the cabinet to publish the registry on its website.
"It should be more transparent and accessible to the public," Keene said.
Jennifer Diaz, the Northern Kentucky mother pushing for the law, said the babysitter was convicted of injuring her daughter and another child she cared for and sentenced to three months in jail.
Diaz said her daughter, now 2, recovered from the injuries that included bruises and head trauma. But Diaz said she believes there should be a way for parents seeking child care to check out individual sitters or other adults around their children.
"It's very important to us to get this passed," she said. "I want that registry to be accessible to the public so that everyone can see it."
Contact reporter Deborah Yetter at (502) 582-4228 or at email@example.com.