‘Trust, but verify’ saves lives, shrinks government

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Transparency not only makes government smaller, less costly and more responsive to its constituents. It saves lives, too.

The downside: It can embarrass government agencies and the bureaucrats who run them.

But ask me if I care more about assisting efforts by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services – which is shut up tighter than a pair of vise grips – to save face or finding out what really happened to Amy Dye, a 9-year-old Western Kentucky girl.

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It turns out that Amy was beaten to death with a hydraulic jack handle last year by her 17-year-old adoptive brother.

It also turns out that Amy’s teachers at South Todd Elementary School had contacted cabinet officials at least eight different times to report that the girl had been abused.

Nashville’s WSMV-TV reports that even though pictures were provided showing abuse, the response was “this referral does not meet criteria for investigation as this involves a sibling altercation.”

But the problem is, they don’t make the criteria known – or they make it a moving target.

“They invent a different set of categories each year,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “So one year there may be a large number of children involved in what are categorized as ‘pending cases,’ but then next year, that category entirely vanishes and nobody knows what happened to those children and their cases.”

Teachers told the TV reporters that “this is a recurring problem: they report abuse and nothing happens.”

Camille Dillingham, the school’s principal, said “If action had been taken, Amy would still be with us.”

But action wasn’t taken because the powerful incentives that attach themselves to policies of transparency and accountability were missing.

Isn’t it just human nature to pay more attention to the job you’re doing when you know the boss will be paying close attention?

Cabinet officials knew that if they were forced to release internal reviews of 85 cases involving children who died or were hurt in 2009 and 2010 – which the courts ultimately required – that taxpaying citizens, the “boss” that pay the cabinet’s bills, would discover what Lexington Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep uncovered: “the cabinet sometimes fails to do comprehensive reviews in child death and injury cases.”

And the “boss” didn’t like it.

As Circuit Judge Tyler Gill, who serves in the district where Dye was killed, said: "The publicity surrounding recent tragic deaths of children in Kentucky, and the now public shenanigans of the cabinet, caught lying about what it knew and when it knew it, have triggered a rare public anger.”

Too rare, I might add – in all areas of state government.

Brooks said this about a lack of transparency: “You never obfuscate numbers because you have a good number.”

Could that explain why the chosen few who make the bulk of the state’s most critical budget decisions would rather do so with doors closed, windows covered and armed state troopers guarding the entrance to their fiscal fiefdom?

Leaders of Frankfort’s good-ol’-boy network claim that they can’t have frank discussions without the cloak of secrecy hiding their horse-trading budget deals from the public’s eye.

But one of Judge Gill’s gems is as true in the halls of Frankfort as it is in a western Kentucky community: “While we can always find some downside to open government, the consequences of government secrecy are far worse.”

Hail to the judge.

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