Kentucky auditor, cabinet clash over access to child abuse database as new law takes effect

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

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FRANKFORT — The legislature last year moved responsibility for a watchdog office and child support enforcement from the Beshear administration to Republican officeholders. 

Barely out of the gate, one of the transitions is stumbling over a disagreement about access to a child abuse database. 

Republican Auditor of Public Accounts Allison Ball on Tuesday sent what she labeled a “demand letter” to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander. In it she says the cabinet’s refusal to allow access to some electronic records is endangering vulnerable children and federal funding. She demands access to the iTWIST database “as clearly mandated by state and federal law.”

The letter also is signed by Jonathan Grate, the new ombudsman.

In 2023, the legislature created the Commonwealth Office of the Ombudsman, an independent office attached to the auditor’s office, effective July 1 of this year. It replaced the Office of the Ombudsman and Administrative Review, previously part of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS).

The ombudsman is responsible for investigating complaints about the cabinet and evaluating its performance and compliance with federal and state laws. The cabinet oversees a wide range of health, welfare and child protection programs.

A spokesperson for the cabinet told the Lantern that an older state law precludes the new ombudsman from receiving access to the records in dispute. That law specifies exceptions to confidentiality requirements for reports of child abuse and neglect; the new ombudsman is not one of the exceptions.

“The cabinet supports the auditor’s office desire to have full access to the system, but the current statutes passed by the General Assembly prohibit it. The cabinet supports changing the applicable laws in the next session to provide full access. 

“In the meantime, we have been working with the auditor’s office to provide them with the maximum access allowed under the current law, but they have refused,” said Stephanie French, a CHFS spokesperson. 

Joy Pidgorodetska Markland, communications director in the auditor’s office, responded that the cabinet’s proposal is unacceptable because it would allow the cabinet to dictate what the ombudsman is “allowed and not allowed to see” and reveal identities of internal whistleblowers.

“In no world is the subject of an investigation allowed to dictate what the investigator can and cannot see,” Markland said in an email. “What is the Cabinet hiding?

In her letter, Ball says the cabinet did not raise objections to the new ombudsman’s access to the records until after the 2024 legislative session ended. 

The shifts in responsibilities from CHFS to the auditor and attorney general were enacted in 2023 in Senate Bill 48 which became law with bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled legislature but without Beshear’s signature.

The transfer of child support enforcement and services to the attorney general’s office does not take effect until this time next year but the AG this month assumed responsibility for administrative hearings previously conducted by CHFS.

In a July 1 release, Republican Attorney General Russell Coleman says: “With over $1 billion in arrears, spearheading the Commonwealth’s child support services is a daunting task. Even though the transition is one year away, we are working with our partners around the clock to make sure we get this right. It’s a no-fail mission where vulnerable children and families are counting on us.”

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https://kentuckylantern.com/2024/07/09/kentucky-auditor-cabinet-clash-over-access-to-child-abuse-database-as-new-law-takes-effect/