EARLIER: Cabinet for Health and Family Services appeals release of records on dead teen

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Cabinet fight goes to court to avoid having to release records to The Sentinel-News

By Lisa King

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services has appealed a ruling by the Kentucky Attorney General’s office to release records to The Sentinel-News relating to Shelby County teenager Jackleen Lane, who drowned in June.

The Cabinet filed the appeal last week in Shelby Circuit Court, a month after the Attorney General ruled it had violated the state’s Open Records Act in denying the release of its records concerning Lane, who was found dead June 17 in Clear Creek.

The cause of her death was ruled accidental drowning, but questions persisted about how Lane, 15, could have found her way into the creek and how her absence might have gone unreported for three days.

Kerry Johnson, publisher of The Sentinel-News, said that although the Cabinet’s action was not unexpected, it was nonetheless disappointing.

“We expected this kind of reaction from the Cabinet,” he said. “It still surprises me that in this day and age there is this lack of transparency and integrity. By not releasing the information, they [Cabinet officials] are admitting there is something they don’t want known.”

In its initial refusal, the Cabinet had argued that suspected neglect or abuse that could have resulted in Lane’s death – the basis of the request submitted by Editor Steve Doyle – had not been reported by a parent or guardian, and the appeal filed Thursday reiterated that stance.

“An actual controversy exists in the parties’ construction of the meaning of the Kentucky Open Records Act,” the appeal document said. “This case does not fall within that exception.”

Doyle had written in the newspaper’s separate requests to Cabinet officials on June 26 and July 3 for all records and transcripts concerning child custody issues involving Lane. That request was based on state law that reads that such records, normally closed to public scrutiny, are to be made available “in a case where child abuse or neglect has resulted in a child fatality or near fatality.”

The newspaper’s request included the reasoning behind that exception, saying a 15-year-old girl who has not been at her Cabinet-designated home for three days or contacted her guardian in that time, then was found dead miles from where she was supposed to be, “creates the ultimate example of neglect.”

Lane, a student at the Education Center at Cropper, had been in the care of her brother, Joshua Lane of Bagdad, after the Cabinet last year removed her from the home of her mother, Pauline Likes. Joshua Lane has said he had not heard from his sister since the Friday before her body was discovered on Monday morning.

The Cabinet denied the newspaper’s request, and on Aug. 16 The Sentinel-News appealed. In the is  response on Sept. 18, an attorney for Attorney General Jack Conway’s office wrote that, “We find the cabinet’s reliance on KRS. 620.050(5) was misplaced.”

The Cabinet’s appeal last week called the Attorney General’s conclusion erroneous and “demands” judgment against the newspaper and a reversal of the Attorney General’s opinion.

Daniel Kemp, media spokesperson  for the Attorney General’s office, said he could not speak on the issue.

“We are not able to comment on that situation because of the possibility of pending litigation,” he said.

D. Brent Irvin, deputy general counsel for the Cabinet, did not return phone calls from The Sentinel-News.

Jeremy Rogers, an attorney for the Kentucky Press Association, had said when the newspaper had won its appeal that a long time could pass before the Cabinet would produce those records, maybe even years.

“They [Cabinet officials] admitted this in the first case, that they had a policy never to release that information, even though the law said that they could and should,” he said at the time.

When he learned Tuesday of the cabinet’s appeal, Rogers said, “This is not a huge surprise.”

Only in recent times, he said, have newspapers won any court battles involving the release of such records.

“We obtained some of these [sorts of] records on behalf of The Courier-Journal and The [Lexington] Herald-Leader,” he said.

“What happens next is that we will file an answer to the lawsuit, and then proceed from there to get a ruling from the court, just like we have in the other cases involving the same sort of issue.”