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By Mike Wynn
FRANKFORT, Ky. – The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services is appealing a recent court decision in a five-year legal battle over newspaper access to child abuse records.
Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd found last year that the cabinet "willfully circumvented" the Open Records Act by failing to fully release files on child abuse fatalities and near deaths.
He has fined the cabinet $756,000 and ordered payment more than $300,000 in attorney fees to The Courier-Journal and Lexington Herald-Leader, which sued for access to the documents.
But the cabinet filed an appeal with the Kentucky Court of Appeals on March 31, asking for the case to be transferred directly to the Kentucky Supreme Court.
Officials are also requesting that Shepherd stay his order to release case files on children who were being monitored by the state when they died or nearly died from abuse or neglect.
The ruling "has raised significant legal questions concerning the Open Records Act that need to be addressed by an appellate court," the cabinet's attorney, Sheryl Snyder, said in a statement. "Public agencies are entitled to clear, final decisions by the courts."
But Jon Fleischaker, attorney for Courier-Journal, called Shepherd's decision "solid" and said April 1 that he expects it to be upheld.
"He spent a lot of time on it, and we think it was an appropriate decision," Fleischaker said.
The Courier-Journal sought the records to examine how the state social services agency was handling child abuse cases. Reports showed that roughly 30 Kentucky children die each year of abuse and neglect, ranking the state among the highest in the nation in its rate of deaths.
Shepherd, in awarding attorneys fees, noted the dozens of children who died while under the cabinet's supervision and said the court did not consider their deaths "inevitable."
Snyder, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd, joined the cabinet's legal team in the appeal at an hourly rate of $125.
Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission through the Kentucky Press News Service.