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Child Abuse and Neglect in Kentucky

Renee Shaw and guests discuss child abuse and neglect. Guests: State Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville), Senate Majority Caucus Chair; Shannon Moody, Kentucky Youth Advocates; Heather Wagers, Kentucky Attorney General's Office; and Melissa L. Currie, M.D., chief of Norton Children's Pediatric Protection Specialists.
Season 30 Episode 1 Length 56:34 Premiere: 02/06/23


Kentucky Tonight

KET’s Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, brings together an expert panel for in-depth analysis of 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.

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.

Often aired live, viewers are encouraged to participate by submitting questions in real-time via email, Twitter or KET’s online form. Viewers with questions and comments may send an email 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 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 the Director of Public Affairs and Moderator at KET, currently serving as host of KET’s weeknight public affairs program Kentucky Edition, the signature public policy discussion series Kentucky Tonight, the weekly interview series Connections, Election coverage and KET Forums.

Since 2001, Renee has been the producing force behind KET’s legislative coverage that has been recognized by the Kentucky Associated Press and the National Educational Telecommunications Association. Under her leadership, KET has expanded its portfolio of public affairs content to include a daily news and information program, Kentucky Supreme Court coverage, townhall-style forums, and multi-platform program initiatives around issues such as opioid addiction and youth mental health.  

Renee has also earned top awards from the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS), with three regional Emmy awards. In 2023, she was inducted into the Silver Circle of the NATAS, one of the industry’s highest honors recognizing television professionals with distinguished service in broadcast journalism for 25 years or more.  

Already an inductee into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame (2017), Renee expands her hall of fame status with induction into Western Kentucky University’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni in November of 2023.  

In February of 2023, Renee graced the front cover of Kentucky Living magazine with a centerfold story on her 25 years of service at KET and even longer commitment to public media journalism. 

In addition to honors from various educational, civic, and community organizations, Renee has earned top honors from the Associated Press and has twice been recognized by Mental Health America for her years-long dedication to examining issues of mental health and opioid addiction.  

In 2022, she was honored with Women Leading Kentucky’s Governor Martha Layne Collins Leadership Award recognizing her trailblazing path and inspiring dedication to elevating important issues across Kentucky.   

In 2018, she co-produced and moderated a 6-part series on youth mental health that was awarded first place in educational content by NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. 

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; and was recognized as a “Kentucky Trailblazer” by the University of Kentucky Martin School of Public Policy and Administration during the Wendell H. Ford Lecture Series in 2019. That same year, Shaw was named by The Kentucky Gazette’s inaugural recognition of the 50 most notable women in Kentucky politics and government.  

Renee was bestowed the 2021 Berea College Service Award and was named “Unapologetic Woman of the Year” in 2021 by the Community Action Council.   

In 2015, she received the Green Dot Award for her coverage of domestic violence, sexual assault & human trafficking. In 2014, Renee was awarded the Anthony Lewis Media Award from the KY Department of Public Advocacy for her work on criminal justice reform. Two Kentucky governors, Republican Ernie Fletcher and Democrat Andy Beshear, have commissioned Renee as a Kentucky Colonel for noteworthy accomplishments and service to community, state, and nation.  

A former adjunct media writing professor at Georgetown College, Renee traveled to Cambodia in 2003 to help train emerging journalists on reporting on critical health issues as part of an exchange program at Western Kentucky University. And, she has enterprised stories for national media outlets, the PBS NewsHour and Public News Service.  

Shaw is a 2007 graduate of Leadership Kentucky, a board member of CASA of Lexington, and a longtime member of the Frankfort/Lexington Chapter of The Links Incorporated, an international, not-for-profit organization of women of color committed to volunteer service. She has served on the boards of the Kentucky Historical Society, Lexington Minority Business Expo, and the Board of Governors for the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. 

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

Panelists Discuss an Ongoing Crisis Affecting Kentucky’s Children and Explore Solutions

For three straight years, Kentucky led the nation in rates of child maltreatment. The latest numbers available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now place the commonwealth at fifth among all states in terms of victimization of children.

But child welfare advocates caution that drop alone doesn’t make for a trend. And the time period the data covers came during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools were closed and teachers, who are critical sources of child abuse reports, had much less direct interaction with their students.

“Without our teachers laying eyes on our kids, I think there was significant under-reporting,” says Dr. Melissa L. Currie, chief of Norton Children's Pediatric Protection Specialists in Louisville. “On the other hand, is there a possibility that there some protective factor to COVID as well?”

Currie says with many people working from home in 2020, there could have been more adults around to protect children from potential mistreatment. But she says officials simply won’t know the long-term implications of the pandemic without more data, which is due to be released soon.

Even though incidence rates have decreased, Currie says the severity of cases is getting worse as health care providers see more children – and younger children – who have experienced severe injuries and even torture. That includes cases of pediatric abusive head trauma, or what was commonly known as shaken baby syndrome.

“It is basically any injury to the brain or the contents of skull or the head in general that’s from other than an accidental means,” says Currie. “It can include things like skull fractures and blunt force trauma to the head in addition to shaking or crush mechanisms, and it continues to be the single most deadly form of child physical abuse.”

As violent as the trauma can be, Currie says it’s sometimes difficult for doctors to diagnose. Bruising is a common symptom, especially in babies who are not yet walking, but contusions are not present in all cases. She says other symptoms of abusive head trauma can include disorientation, inability to focus on objects or people, changes to sleep patterns, increased fussiness, or even cardio-pulmonary arrest.

Another disturbing trend in the existing data is the number of children who overdose after accidentally ingesting a prescription drug or illicit substance. Currie says sometimes the incident occurs when a child gets into a family member’s purse or medicine cabinet and takes something they shouldn’t. Sometimes the ingestion is the result of drug abuse within the household.

“We are seeing unfortunately a lot situations where the caregiver is taking [an] illicit substance and they pass out from that, and then the children have access to the remaining substance,” says Heather Wagers of the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office of Trafficking and Abuse Prevention and Prosecution. “These are absolutely some of the most preventable accidents that occur in Kentucky and we can make a difference by something as simple as a storage container or keeping your medicine locked far away from where children have access.”

The problem can extend to drugs used in the medication-assisted treatment for an addiction. While buprenorphine and methadone can facilitate recovery in adults, Currie says they can be deadly to a child who ingests them. Even if ingestion of an illicit drug or a treatment medication is accidental, Currie says the adult is still accountable.

“We try hard to stay away from discussing intent in child abuse pediatrics,” says Currie, “but we can say that things were wanton or reckless, that any reasonable person would have known to keep narcotics off the coffee table, for example, if you have a two-year old home.”

Legislation and Funding Seek to Improve Social Services

State lawmakers have passed legislation in recent years to address child maltreatment in the commonwealth. One sweeping measure, Senate Bill 8 in the 2022 session, updated definitions of abuse and neglect, strengthened kinship care, increased Medicaid services available to vulnerable populations, and directed social workers to intervene sooner with families in crisis and provide them with wraparound services that can prevent abuse from occurring.

“I think the secret sauce to us passing Senate Bill 8 last year is it was holistic in nature,” says state Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville), who sponsored the bipartisan measure. “We tried to include every single stakeholder possible.”

The legislation expanded the use fictive care, which is where a child who needs to be removed from their home is placed with someone who knows and loves the child but is not a blood relative. SB 8 also sought to break the stereotype that poor families neglect their children.

“Years ago, we viewed households that were in poverty as somehow more suspect than a household that was affluent,” says Adams. “The truth is sometimes parents who are in poverty love their children just as much as affluent parents do.”

Instead of outright neglect, Adams says the parents or caregivers simply may not have the knowledge needed to create a safe environment for the child. She says that’s where social services can help provide the resources necessary to address the situation before it can escalate.

Providing that kind of prevention assistance can be difficult, though, if parents fear the state may take their child away from them. Shannon Moody of Kentucky Youth Advocates says the trick is to destigmatize the services the state offers at-risk families.

“When we’re talking about primary prevention, which is where we really want things to go, it’s really that universal opportunity within communities for parents and caregivers to ask for help without fear of potential repercussions where Child Protective Services is getting involved,” says Moody.

But to provide these services and interventions takes people and money. Adams says the legislature appropriated $20 million last year to fund this work, but that’s just the start. She says more than 600 state social workers have left their jobs over the last two years due to stress and high workloads. She says fewer people to investigate these cases can result in more bad outcomes, especially for the state’s youngest children.

“You can’t fulfill the obligation of protecting children unless you have the requisite number of social workers,” says Adams. “Not only do you have to have the personnel, which we’re committed to having and shoring up, but you have to have the prevention services.”

Other Child Welfare Challenges

The latest report from the state’s Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel showed that 75 out of 80 child deaths in the commonwealth during 2020 were potentially preventable through some kind of intervention. About two-thirds of those cases had some previous contact with social services personnel from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

“That doesn’t necessarily imply that the cabinet did anything wrong during their previous involvement,” says Currie, who is a member of the review panel. “They may have addressed the issues that were at hand... and then something changed with the family.”

Another challenge is how child abuse hotline calls are screened. Currie says hotline operators may not refer a call for investigation if the allegations are not specific enough or if the call is being placed for retaliatory reasons. Even if a call doesn’t meet the criteria for investigation, that doesn’t mean the concern may not be legitimate.

“We certainly have seen a fair number of cases here in Kentucky where the children presented with a fatality or near-fatality and had a history of screened-out referrals, and in some of those cases we questioned why they were screened out,” says Currie.

Currie says screeners should take into account whether the family has had prior engagement with social services. She also says reports coming from teachers, doctors, or nurses should carry more weight in the screening process.

The majority of maltreatment cases – about 87 percent – involve some kind of neglect, which can include inadequate medical care, education, or adult supervision as well as failure to provide for a child’s basic needs. Currie says state officials have seen a sharp jump in recent years in medical neglect, which can be the failure of a caregiver to seek care for a child or failure to adhere to a prescribed treatment plan.

For example, she says health care providers are reporting an increase in pediatric diabetic ketoacidosis, which is a potentially deadly complication that arises when a child does not get the insulin he or she needs.

An issue that could come before lawmakers this session is medical care for youth who want to transition their gender. Currie says that as a child abuse pediatrician she considers the absence of care for a transitioning child to be a form of medical neglect.

“Children deserve the medical care they need for whatever their diagnosis is,” says Currie. “That is a precious decision that happens between a child, their parents, and their doctor.”

But some people argue that gender transition procedures are a form of child abuse, according to Adams. She says there could be legislation proposed on the matter by state House members.

“We’re going to have to listen to testimony from the medical community, we’re going to have to listen to testimony from the phycological community,” says Adams. “Hopefully we can get to where we need to be from a public policy standpoint.”

Another form of maltreatment is the sexual trafficking of children. Wagers says her office has seen trafficking victims that range from infants to teenagers.

“Children are some of our most vulnerable Kentuckians, and so people are looking for opportunities to prey on that,” says Wagers. “We’re also seeing a rise in familial trafficking in Kentucky, and it’s sad to think about that a caregiver or parent may be involved in the trafficking of child.”

Wagers says the opioid epidemic is driving incidents of familial trafficking. She says symptoms of child trafficking including behavior changes like acting out or becoming withdrawn, wearing different clothes, or being secretive with electronic devices.

When an unexpected child fatality does occur, Moody says county coroners should immediately notify state child welfare officials, especially if the death involves unnatural causes. She says that’s critical to establishing a crime scene investigation should one be warranted. Currie says coroners also need more training on how to recognize a suspicious child fatality. For example, she says a child with a complex medical history may have died from natural causes or the death could have been the result of maltreatment or medical neglect.

Given the lingering problems with child welfare and social services in the commonwealth, Adams says lawmakers will continue to focus on these issues in this year’s 30-day General Assembly session. She says it’s important that they hear from stakeholders and medical experts who can guide them on what they can do to improve the plight of young Kentuckians.

“We’re not where we need to be, we’re trying to get there,” says Adams. “So while we’re in session and we have ability to make adjustments to make better public policy, I need for people to come to me and say, ‘Julie, here’s what we need to do.’”

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Season 30 Episodes

Early Childhood Education

S30 E41 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/26/24

Abortion Legislation

S30 E40 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/19/24

School Choice and Education Issues

S30 E39 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/12/24

State Budget Discussion

S30 E38 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/05/24

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in Higher Education

S30 E37 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 01/29/24

Safer Kentucky Act

S30 E36 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/22/24

Legislative Priorities in the 2024 General Assembly

S30 E35 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 01/08/24

Governor Andy Beshear's Budget Address

S30 E34 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 12/18/23

2024 Legislative Preview: Part Two

S30 E33 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 12/04/23

2024 Legislative Preview

S30 E32 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 11/20/23

Analysts Discuss What to Expect on Election Day 2023

S30 E31 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/06/23

Candidate Conversations: Lieutenant Governor

S30 E30 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/30/23

Candidate Conversations: Governor

S30 E29 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/23/23

Political Analysts Forecast the 2023 General Election

S30 E28 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/17/23

Secretary of State; Commissioner of Agriculture

S30 E27 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/09/23

Auditor of Public Accounts; State Treasurer

S30 E26 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/02/23

Kentucky's Economy, Jobs and Taxes

S30 E25 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/25/23

Higher Education in Kentucky

S30 E24 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/18/23

Kentucky's Health Care Challenges

S30 E23 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/11/23

Education Issues in Kentucky

S30 E22 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/21/23

Fancy Farm Preview and Kentucky Politics

S30 E21 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/31/23

Kentucky's Energy Needs

S30 E20 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 07/17/23

Artificial Intelligence

S30 E19 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 07/10/23

Jobs, Inflation and the Economy

S30 E18 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 06/26/23

SB 150 and LGBTQ Issues

S30 E17 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/19/23

Horse Racing Safety

S30 E16 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 06/12/23

A Discussion of Gun Laws

S30 E15 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 06/05/23

Recapping The 2023 Kentucky Primary

S30 E14 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/22/23

2023 Primary Election Preview

S30 E13 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 05/15/23

Republican Candidate for Secretary of State

S30 E12 Length 15:00 Premiere Date 05/08/23

Republican Candidates for Governor

S30 E11 Length 1:29:20 Premiere Date 05/01/23

Candidates for Treasurer and Commissioner of Agriculture

S30 E10 Length 1:15:06 Premiere Date 04/24/23

Challenges Facing Kentucky Schools

S30 E9 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 04/17/23

Policy Analysts Recap the 2023 General Assembly

S30 E8 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 04/10/23

Recap of the 2023 Kentucky General Assembly

S30 E7 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 04/03/23

Kentucky Legislation on LGBTQ+ Youth

S30 E6 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 03/20/23

Student Discipline Legislation

S30 E5 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/13/23

Gambling Proposals in the Kentucky General Assembly

S30 E4 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/27/23

Kentucky's Teacher Shortage

S30 E3 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/20/23

Exploring Local Government Issues

S30 E2 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 02/13/23

Child Abuse and Neglect in Kentucky

S30 E1 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/06/23

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Early Childhood Education - S30 E42

Renee Shaw and guests discuss early childhood education. Scheduled guests: State Senator Danny Carroll (R-Benton), chair of the Senate Families and Children Committee and sponsor of the Horizons Act, SB 203, that addresses the child-care industry needs in Kentucky; State Senator Cassie Chambers Armstrong (D-Louisville), member of the Senate Families and Children Committee; Sarah Vanover, Ed.D., author of America's Child-Care Crisis: Rethinking an Essential Business, and policy and research director for Kentucky Youth Advocates; Kate Shanks, vice president of public affairs at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; Brigitte Blom, president & CEO of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence; and Andrew McNeill, president of Kentucky Forum for Rights, Economics & Education (KYFREE). A 2024 KET production.

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The State Budget - S30 E39

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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at Kentucky Colleges & Universities - S30 E38

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