In the year before a Kentucky toddler drank drain cleaner and died, social workers tried repeatedly to have a woman helping care for him take drug tests, without success in most cases.
More than two dozen times, social workers left messages for Melissa Branham, the toddler's grandmother, to come in for a drug test, but she didn't, according to the state's file on the case. On at least two occasions, Branham failed to show up after saying she would try to come in for a drug test.
The difficulty in getting Branham to take drug tests should have prompted caseworkers to take a closer look at whether the state should remove Kayden Branham, 20 months old when he died, and his teenage mother, Alisha Branham, from Melissa Branham's home, according to an expert on child protection.
David Richart, executive director of the National Institute for Children, Youth and Families, a think tank in Louisville, said the cabinet should have done more to assess whether Melissa Branham was the best person to supervise her daughter and grandson.
"Drug abuse is one of the biggest indicators or predicators of abuse and neglect by the cabinet's own statistics," Richart said. "If there is that many (missed drug tests) then somebody dropped the ball."
Instead, Alisha Branham, 14, moved to her father's trailer outside Monticello about a month before Kayden died because there was no food, water or electricity at her mother's house, she said later.
It was at her father's trailer that Kayden, looking for juice, drank Liquid Fire that had been left in a coffee cup on a table. The caustic chemical can be used in making crystal meth.
The toddler died less than an hour later of respiratory failure on May 30, 2009, records show.
The details about circumstances leading up to Kayden's death were included in a file maintained by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd released portions of the file Monday in response to a lawsuit filed by the Lexington Herald-Leader and joined by The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.
The cabinet had refused to release the file, but Shepherd ruled the public and newspapers had a legitimate interest in trying to assess the cabinet's efforts to protect Alisha and Kayden.
Vikki Franklin, spokeswoman for the cabinet, said state officials could not comment on specifics of the case.
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