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Child Abuse and Neglect

Renee Shaw leads a discussion about child abuse and neglect. Guests: State Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville); State Rep. Joni Jenkins (D-Shively); Sec. Eric Friedlander, Ky. Cabinet for Health and Family Services; Melissa L. Currie, M.D., child abuse specialist, Norton's Children's Hospital; Deborah Yetter, Courier-Journal reporter; and Terry Brooks, executive director of Ky. Youth Advocates.
Season 29 Episode 6 Length 56:33 Premiere: 02/07/22


Kentucky Tonight

KET’s Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, brings together an expert panel for in-depth analysis on major issues facing the Commonwealth.

This weekly program features comprehensive discussions with lawmakers, stakeholders and policy leaders that are moderated by award-winning journalist Renee Shaw. Often aired live, viewers are encouraged to participate by submitting questions real-time via email, Twitter or KET’s online form.
For nearly three decades, Kentucky Tonight has been a source for complete and balanced coverage of the most urgent and important public affairs developments in the state of Kentucky.

Viewers with questions and comments may send e-mail to or use the contact form. All messages should include first and last name and town or county. The phone number for viewer calls during the program is 1-800-494-7605.

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Kentucky Tonight was awarded a 1997 regional Emmy by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The series was also honored with a 1995 regional Emmy nomination.

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Renee Shaw is Moderator and Director of Public Affairs for Kentucky Educational Television, currently serving as host of KET’s Kentucky Tonight, Connections, election coverage, Legislative Update and KET Forums.

Since joining KET in 1997, Shaw has produced numerous KET public affairs series and specials, including KET’s nationally recognized legislative coverage. Under her leadership, KET has expanded its portfolio of public affairs content to include Kentucky Supreme Court coverage, town hall-style forums, and multi-platform program initiatives around issues such as opioid addiction and youth mental health.  

As an award-winning journalist, Shaw has earned top awards from the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, earning two regional Emmy awards, and an award from the Kentucky Associated Press for political coverage of the state legislature. She was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2017. She has been honored by the AKA Beta Gamma Omega Chapter with a Coretta Scott King Spirit of Ivy Award; earned the state media award from the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2019; named a Charles W. Anderson Laureate by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet in 2019 honoring her significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues; earned the Anthony Lewis Media Award from the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy for her work on criminal justice reform in 2014; and, in 2015, received the Green Dot Award for her coverage of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.  

In 2018, KET earned a national media award from Mental Health America for its multi-dimensional content on the opioid epidemic shepherded by Shaw. That same year, she co-produced and moderated a six-part series on youth mental health that was awarded first place in educational content by NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. In 2019, Shaw was recognized by The Kentucky Gazette as one of the 50 most notable women in Kentucky politics and government. In addition, Renee was awarded the Charles W. Anderson Laureate Award by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues.

Host Renee Shaw smiling in a green dress with a KET set behind her.

Lawmakers and Advocates Discuss Proposed Legislation that Addresses Kentucky's High Rates of Child Abuse

A recent report from the state Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel paints a bleak picture for some of Kentucky’s most vulnerable youth. Of the 200 cases of abuse and neglect they investigated, 80 children died, while the remainder sustained life-threatening injuries. Many of those 200 children were under 4 years of age.

The report is an indicator of another troubling statistic: Kentucky has led the nation in the rate of child abuse for the past three years.

The causes, according to child welfare advocates, are many, including poverty, housing insecurity, substance abuse, one or both parents incarcerated, and a lack of social support services. On top of those, you can now add a global pandemic.

“COVID is… the perfect storm,” says Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander. “It’s economic challenge, it’s uncertainty, it’s isolation – our normal pathways of reporting are not there.”

Pandemic closures meant children weren’t in school or in daycare for months at a time, where teachers might have reported their concerns to authorities. Dr. Melissa L. Currie, a child abuse pediatrics specialist and a member of the review panel, says isolation from extended family and friends also meant fewer people were looking after the wellbeing of children.

“We have seen uptick in the number of cases of torture in young children and I think the pandemic is only going to show that getting worse,” says Currie.

Social workers did try to help in many of these cases. The review panel report shows that about two-thirds of the families involved had prior contact with state social services. Of the fatalities documented, 75 of the 80 deaths were listed as preventable. Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) says the problem has gotten so bad that lawmakers can no longer ignore it.

“We can’t wait around any longer,” says Adams, who is co-chair of the Child Welfare Oversight and Advisory Committee. “It is all hands on deck and we have got to tackle the issue.”

A ‘Comprehensive Approach’ to Child Welfare

Adams is the sponsor of Senate Bill 8, which seeks to address many of the factors that undermine the state’s response to child abuse and neglect cases. She says the legislation was developed during the interim period last year when her advisory committee talked with stakeholders about the issues from public policy to staffing to funding.

SB 8 updates the definitions of abuse and neglect, strengthens kinship care, expands the use of so-called fictive care, creates new rights for foster children, and increases Medicaid reimbursement rates for child advocacy centers. SB 8 also directs social workers to intervene when children are at moderate risk of abuse instead of waiting until they are at imminent risk. Adams says the goal is to provide wrap-around services to families sooner rather than waiting until the only option might be to place the child in foster care.

“In my opinion, trying to change the paradigm from taking the child out to healing the family is so critical,” says Adams

SB 8 passed the Senate on Feb. 2 on a 32-4 vote, and now awaits actions by the House of Representatives, where the legislation is already drawing bipartisan praise.

“The work in Senate Bill 8 is extraordinary,” says House Minority Floor Leader Joni Jenkins of Louisville. “It sets us on a right path.”

The Democrat says she appreciates the input from youth that is reflected in the bill, saying lawmakers need to hear from kids who have experienced the system to learn about the problems they have. But she also warns that this this cannot be a one-bill, single-session effort. Jenkins, who is not seeking reelection, says lawmakers in this and future General Assembly sessions must appropriate the dollars needed to improve child welfare and social services for families.

“I think we should be watching the budget process and see if we’re going to put our money where our mouth is,” says Jenkins. “Year after year, the legislature has to be committed to making sure it’s funded.”

Adams agrees that funding is crucial, especially, she says, since abused and neglected children don’t come to Frankfort to lobby for the services they need.

“It’s so frustrating because the first places that we find to cut are human services and they really should be the last place that we cut,” says Adams. “That’s where our investment is in our future.”

Child welfare advocates have also applauded SB 8. Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks says the legislation takes a comprehensive approach to child welfare. He praises provisions that he says will put youth aging out of foster care on to a path to success. He also endorses a greater emphasis on kinship care (placing a child with a relative like grandparents, aunts, uncles) as well as fictive care, which would place an abused child with a family friend rather than into state foster care.

“It could be a godmother, it could be a godfather, a neighbor, somebody with a connection,” says Brooks. “It provides a broader net so that young children who have to be removed from the home perhaps are placed with that caring adult that they have some connection with.”

Currie points to the expansion of family preservation services that SB 8 provides to children at moderate risk of abuse, and how the legislation removes poverty from the definition of neglect. Courier-Journal social services reporter Deborah Yetter says that’s an important change because poverty doesn’t guarantee an abusive situation but can create an environment where maltreatment could happen.

“Nearly half the kids in Kentucky are in what are considered low-income families,” says Yetter. “Poverty, of course, is not a sign of abuse but it adds to stresses on families that may already be struggling.”

Other Child Welfare Bills

Lawmakers are considering other measures this session that deal with more specific child welfare issues. Senate Bill 97 from Sen. Danny Carroll (R-Benton) would require a drug test for a parent or caregiver suspected of being under the influence at the time of a child fatality or near fatality. Currie says there are often indications of drug use by a parent in those cases, but she says that evidence is not regularly collected.

“We routinely test folks who are in fatal car crashes and industrial accidents,” says Currie. “It makes sense that we would test folks in the setting of an unexpected child death.”

Adams says SB 97, which has passed the Senate, is a good companion to her legislation, but she adds it could be changed in the House to clarify the timeframe in which the drug test should occur. Jenkins says she supports SB 97, but says it should include a provision for substance abuse treatment.

“If we’re going to drug test folks, then we have to offer them treatment,” says Jenkins.

SB 97 also includes language to require the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to acknowledge and respond to recommendations made by the Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel. Yetter says the cabinet would also have to explain why they can or cannot implement those recommendations.

Friedlander says his cabinet should address those recommendations. He says the agency has in the past resisted outside reviews and policy recommendations that would have been beneficial.

House Bill 263 from Rep. C. Ed Massey (R-Hebron) increases the criminal penalties when an abuse victim is under the age of 12.

But another measure regarding parental rights is creating concern among child welfare advocates. Sen. Stephen West’s Senate Bill 40 says a parent “shall have the fundamental right to make decisions concerning their care, custody, and control” of their child or children. A parent who feels this right has been violated by a state agency could sue for damages.

Brooks says West has been good on child-oriented legislation, but he fears SB 40 could hamper reporting of child maltreatment and have a “chilling effect” on the state’s response to such cases.

“If the Senate moves [SB 40] ahead and Senate Bill 8, that is legislative schizophrenia because it works in opposite directions,” says Brooks.

Kentucky has one of the strongest mandatory reporting laws for child abuse and neglect in the nation, according to Currie. She says SB 40 could undermine that. Friedlander says he is worried about the unintended consequences of the measure.

Funding for Social Workers and Family Drug Courts

Perhaps the biggest challenge hindering the state’s response to cases of child abuse and neglect is the shortage of social workers. In the past year, CHFS has lost some 470 social workers and another 320 family support workers. Officials attribute the departures to low pay, scaled-back pension benefits, high caseloads, and job stress.

Gov. Andy Beshear gave social workers a 10 percent pay raise last December, and he included funding for 350 new social workers in his proposed state budget. Friedlander calls that a “down payment” on what the cabinet needs to function effectively.

The House version of the budget provided an additional pay raise for current social workers, but only funded 200 new positions. Jenkins says that lower number is “problematic.” In addition to more staff and better pay, Jenkins says the social workers she’s talked to also want things like tuition reimbursement and better working conditions and hours.

“They get secondary trauma from their work,” says Jenkins. “We need to make sure that they have the mental health resources that they need, that they have time off for self-care.”

The Senate has not released its spending plan yet, but Adams says they shouldn’t discount the executive branch request for more social workers.

“This is one of those significant areas that in my opinion we can’t short-change,” says Adams. “So we’ll take the governor’s recommendation very seriously.”

Another change that child welfare advocates say would make a dramatic difference is a restoration of funding for so-called family drug courts (also known as family recovery courts). These specialized courts worked intensively with drug offenders to provide addiction treatment as well as wrap-around supports for their families.

“The family recovery courts have been shown to be remarkably successful at keeping families together,” says Yetter. “Rather than taking kids away or terminating parents’ rights, they work with the parents to overcome addiction issues.”

But the state cut funding for these courts in 2010. Today the courts exist only in Jefferson and Clay Counties thanks to local funding.

Yetter says the Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel has asked lawmakers for six years to reinstate drug court funding, but to no avail. Currie says the courts provide an effective way to keep certain offenders out of the criminal justice system, get them into treatment, and keep their families whole.

“The outcomes for kids have been shown to be positive, the outcomes for families have been shown to be positive, and they save money,” says Currie.

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Season 29 Episodes

Medical Marijuana Legalization in Kentucky

S29 E44 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/30/23

Kentucky's Juvenile Justice System

S29 E43 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/23/23

Legislation Introduced in the 2023 General Assembly

S29 E42 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/09/23

2023 Legislative Session Preview

S29 E41 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 12/19/22

National Politics

S29 E40 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 12/05/22

2022 Election Preview

S29 E39 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/07/22

Inflation and the Economy

S29 E38 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/31/22

Constitutional Amendments 1 & 2

S29 E37 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 10/24/22

Candidates for U.S. House of Representatives: Part Two

S29 E36 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 10/17/22

Candidates for U.S. House of Representatives: Part One

S29 E35 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/10/22

U.S. Senate Candidate Charles Booker

S29 E34 Length 26:31 Premiere Date 10/03/22

Discussing Flooding's Impact on Eastern Kentucky Schools

S29 E33 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/26/22

COVID-19, Monkeypox and Influenza

S29 E32 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/12/22

Eastern Kentucky Flooding and Legislative Relief Package

S29 E31 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/29/22

Child Care in Kentucky

S29 E30 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/22/22

School Safety: Debating State Policies

S29 E29 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/01/22

Work, Wages and Welfare

S29 E28 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/25/22

50 Years of Title IX

S29 E26 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/18/22

The Impact of U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

S29 E24 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/11/22

Kentucky's Ban on Abortion

S29 E23 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 06/27/22

Discussing New Developments in the COVID-19 Pandemic

S29 E22 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/20/22

Reducing Opioid Addiction Rates in Kentucky

S29 E21 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 06/13/22

Mass Shootings and Gun Laws

S29 E20 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/06/22

Discussing the Rise in Gas Prices and Inflation

S29 E19 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 05/23/22

Previewing Kentucky's 2022 Primary Election

S29 E18 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/16/22

Third Congressional District Democratic Primary

S29 E17 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/09/22

Candidates in the 2022 Primary Election: Part Two

S29 E16 Length 58:33 Premiere Date 05/02/22

Candidates in the 2022 Primary Election: Part One

S29 E15 Length 58:40 Premiere Date 04/25/22

Lawmakers Review the 2022 General Assembly

S29 E14 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 04/18/22

Recap of the 2022 Legislative Session

S29 E13 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 04/11/22

Public Assistance and Jobless Benefits

S29 E12 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/28/22

Abortion Legislation in the 2022 General Assembly

S29 E11 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 03/21/22

State Budget, Taxes, and Other 2022 General Assembly Topics

S29 E10 Length 57:42 Premiere Date 03/14/22

Critical Race Theory and Approaches to Teaching History

S29 E9 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/28/22

2022 Legislative Session at the Midpoint

S29 E8 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/21/22

Name, Image and Likeness Compensation

S29 E7 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/14/22

Child Abuse and Neglect

S29 E6 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/07/22

Debating School Choice in Kentucky

S29 E5 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 02/01/22

Debating Provisions in the Proposed State Budget

S29 E4 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 01/24/22

Redistricting, State Budget, and Other Legislative Issues

S29 E3 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/10/22

Discussing Legislative Goals for the 2022 General Assembly

S29 E2 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/03/22

Previewing the 2022 Kentucky General Assembly

S29 E1 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 12/06/21

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2024 Legislative Session Preview - S30 E33

Renee Shaw hosts a 2024 legislative session preview. Scheduled guests: State Representative Chad Aull (D-Lexington); State Representative Stephanie Dietz (R-Edgewood); State Senator Cassie Chambers Armstrong (D-Louisville); and State Senator Amanda Mays Bledsoe (R- Lexington). A 2023 KET production.

  • Monday December 4, 2023 8:00 pm ET on KET
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Kentucky Tonight - S30 E34

  • Monday December 18, 2023 8:00 pm ET on KET
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2024 Legislative Preview - S30 E32

  • Wednesday November 22, 2023 6:00 pm ET on KETKY
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  • Wednesday November 22, 2023 1:36 am ET on KET
  • Wednesday November 22, 2023 12:36 am CT on KET
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  • Monday November 20, 2023 8:00 pm ET on KET
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2023 Election - S30 E31

  • Tuesday November 7, 2023 2:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday November 7, 2023 1:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday November 7, 2023 6:00 am ET on KETKY
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