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Child Abuse Register Unfair
November 7, 2008 permalink
An American judge has invalidated California's law for putting names on a list of suspected child abusers. Falsely accused parents could appeal only to the worker who placed them on the list.
Ontario's parents have no right to appeal to the social worker placing them on the Child Abuse Register. Parents have to convince the ministry of a mistake after they are already on the register. The judge overseeing a child protection case has no power to get a parent off the list. With the current mood of the Canadian courts, parents are unlikely to find the kind of relief granted in California. In 1999 the Ontario legislature enacted amendments to the Child and Family Services act that abolished the Child Abuse Register by repealing sections 75 and 76, but the repeal never got royal assent. If the Lieutenant Governor proclaimed the law already enacted, the abuse of wrecking a parent's reputation on the whim of a social worker could be corrected.
Index of child-abuser suspects is struck down
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer, Friday, November 7, 2008
A federal appeals court has struck down a long-standing California law that established an index of suspected child abusers - now containing more than 800,000 names - and gives them no way to challenge false listings, which can disqualify them from jobs involving children.
The state's rules for compiling and maintaining the list create a substantial risk of error and deny individuals "a fair opportunity to challenge the allegations against them," said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
The 3-0 ruling, issued Wednesday, said the state must at least allow someone who disputes a listing to appear at a hearing before an official who would be required to follow specific standards to determine whether the designation was justified. Currently, the listed person can appeal only to the officer who made the initial report, and the law contains no standards for a decision.
The lawyer for a Los Angeles-area couple who sued over the continued inclusion of their names on the list said the ruling should help her clients and many thousands of others whose rights have been violated.
"Other states have child abuse registries, but California is unique in having a registry that disseminates information so broadly and provides no review procedure," said attorney Esther Boynton.
Deputy Attorney General Paul Epstein said state officials are reviewing the ruling, and declined further comment.
The state started collecting information for its Child Abuse Central Index in 1965 and passed a revised law in 1988 that now governs the index. Boynton said those on the list weren't even notified of their inclusion until 1996 - the result of a taxpayer's suit she filed after her own name was erroneously included.
The law requires police to send the state attorney general's office reports of every case of child abuse or severe neglect that they investigate and determine to be either true or inconclusive - that is, every case except those that are found to be false or "inherently improbable," the court said, quoting the law.
The law then requires the state to make the list available to a variety of public agencies and private employers. State and county licensing agencies must consult the list for all prospective child care workers and some foster parents. Schools and police departments are allowed to check job applicants' names against the list, and generally do so, the court said.
Employers aren't prohibited from hiring someone whose name appears on the index, but it's reasonable to assume that a listing hurts the person's job prospects, the court said.
Boynton's clients, Craig and Wendy Humphries, were placed on the list after their 15-year-old daughter accused them of abusing her in 2001. Sheriff's deputies arrested the couple and put their other two children in protective custody, but the charges were dropped after a medical examination disclosed that no abuse had occurred, and two judges later declared the couple innocent.
Under the law, the Humphries' only chance to get their names removed from the child abuse list was to persuade the investigating deputy that the allegations were unfounded. But the sheriff's department told them the deputy no longer worked there, and a supervisor decided some crime must have occurred because charges were filed, the court said.
With no further appeal possible, the Humphries said the listing is an obstacle to their plans to volunteer at a local child care center and could hurt Wendy Humphries' chances of renewing her teaching credential.
A federal judge dismissed the couple's suit, saying damage to their reputation did not amount to a violation of their constitutional rights. But the appeals court, in an opinion by Judge Jay Bybee, said the listing "both stigmatizes the Humphries and creates an impediment to (their) ability to obtain legal rights," like employment.
Bybee cited a 2004 state task force report that looked at listings from one county and found that half of them might be erroneous. Although the state is justified in keeping a list of suspected abusers, including those who haven't been convicted of crimes, he said, the California index has too few safeguards to meet constitutional standards.
The ruling in Humphries vs. County of Los Angeles is available at www.ca9.uscourts.gov/ca9/newopinions.nsf.
E-mail Bob Egelko at email@example.com.
Source: The San Francisco Chronicle