ELKTON, KY. — In a case that has come to represent the failures of Kentucky’s child-protection system, a Western Kentucky teenager was sentenced Wednesday to 50 years in prison for the murder of his 9-year-old adopted sister.
Todd Circuit Judge Tyler Gill handed down his sentence for 18-year-old Garrett Dye, who admitted bludgeoning his sister, Amy Dye, with a jack handle Feb. 4. But the judge reserved his most scathing comments for state social service officials who, records show, ignored or dismissed as unfounded repeated allegations of abuse or neglect involving Amy.
Gill made a special point to castigate the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, calling its social-services agency a “dysfunctional institution.”
“This crime has drawn a lot of attention and left this community dazed and confused and angry and searching for answers as to why this could have happened,” he said. “It’s left us wondering how our own state government could have contributed to this by failing to protect Amy.”
School officials suspected that Amy, a fourth-grader at South Todd Elementary, was being abused, and they filed repeated reports with state child-protection officials, according to records ordered released this month by a Franklin Circuit Court judge.
Details of Amy’s abusive life and violent death in the adoptive home where the cabinet placed her in 2006 have prompted calls by lawmakers and a child advocate for Gov. Steve Beshear to lead an investigation and overhaul of child protection services.
“This is a life-and-death situation,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “The governor cannot abrogate his responsibility.”
But the governor’s office has been nearly silent on the case, with Beshear spokesman Terry Sebastian declining to comment Wednesday and instead referring questions to the cabinet.
Cabinet officials also declined to comment. Citing confidentiality concerns, they have repeatedly fought attempts to open their files on children who have died while under the state’s supervision or after being placed in homes by state social workers.
A 2009 Courier-Journal special report revealed that nearly 270 Kentucky children had died of abuse or neglect during the past decade — more than half of them in cases where state officials already knew of or suspected problems.
Todd County Commonwealth’s Attorney Gail Guiling said after Wednesday’s sentencing that she also is angered by the cabinet’s failure to act in Amy’s case and that other prosecutors in the region share her concern over what they believe is a widespread problem with social services.
“Children are dying,” Guiling said. “I feel like there was a systemwide breakdown here that led to this tragic outcome.”
Several key lawmakers have called for changes at the cabinet, including Rep. John Tilley, a Hopkinsville Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who said he wants the panel to look into child protection when the legislature meets in January.
Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, and Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, co-chairmen of the interim joint Health and Welfare Committee, said they plan to seek answers from cabinet officials about child deaths at a meeting next month.
“I think the people of Kentucky should be upset about this,” Burch said. “I’ve had it.”
Garrett Dye, who was 17 at the time of Amy’s death but was prosecuted as an adult, did not speak at Wednesday’s hearing. His lawyer, Dennis Ritchie, said afterward that he plans to appeal the conviction on grounds that Dye’s confession should be thrown out because he was not represented by a lawyer when he spoke to police.
Dye will eligible to seek parole in 20 years.
Cabinet records released this month indicate that Dye had suffered abuse at the hands of his father, Christopher Dye, and that the cabinet had substantiated the abuse in 2003 after the elder Dye beat his son with a belt. The suspected abuse was reported by school officials, who noticed bruises on the boy, then 10, according to records.
But the cabinet took no follow-up action and closed the case.
Ritchie said that could be considered mitigating evidence should Dye’s appeal succeed and his case be sent back to a trial court.
Christopher Dye, the only family member to attend Wednesday’s hearing, declined to comment afterward. Kimberly Dye, his ex-wife and Amy’s adoptive mother, was not present. Neither was charged in Amy’s death.
Christopher and Kimberly Dye — Amy’s great aunt — divorced before she applied to adopt the girl in 2005.
Guiling said she was disturbed that no one appeared to speak on behalf of Amy, who was removed from the custody of her mother in Washington state at age 3 and had no other local relatives.
Her office has had no contact with Christopher or Kimberly Dye, she said, other than a notice after Amy’s death from the Kentucky crime victim’s compensation program that the Dyes had applied for funds to cover the cost of Amy’s cremation.
Kimberly Dye described herself as a single mother with two sons, Garrett and Myles, his older brother, when she sought cabinet approval to adopt Amy.
Christopher Dye later moved back into the home and helped raise all three children. But state social services officials never took note of that, according to Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd, who ordered the release of the cabinet records that state officials had fought to keep confidential.
“The files contain no indication the cabinet ever took notice of the fact that the same household in which (Amy) was reportedly being abused was the same household in which the cabinet had previously substantiated abuse,” Shepherd’s Nov. 7 order said.
Garrett Dye told police he became angry at Amy the night he killed her after Christopher Dye sent the two outside on a cold, snowy night to shovel gravel as punishment for misbehaving, according to the records. He said that after beating her in the head with the jack handle, he hid the body in bushes on the family property, where it was later found by police, the records state.
After Amy’s death, police found her clothing piled in tarp-covered drawers outside the home, according to the records. Christopher and Kimberly Dye forced her to go outside in freezing weather for clean clothes as punishment for poor bowel control when she soiled herself, the records said.
Christopher Dye also acknowledged that in January he briefly abandoned Amy in a hotel parking lot in Clarksville, Tenn., to “teach her a lesson” for misbehaving, the records said. Social services officials substantiated an accusation of neglect against him in August for that incident, six months after Amy’s death.
On Wednesday, Gill wished Garrett Dye good luck, though he said he had seen no evidence of remorse or any understanding of what he had done.
“I hope you make the best of your life even though you are going to spend the best part of it in prison,” Gill said.