Secret Child Abuser Lists - Is your name in the data base?

Nationwide, thousands of parents are placed on a database of child abusers by state-run CPS agencies based upon anonymous reports. In many cases, the parents are not aware that their names have been placed on the "registries".

This from today's edition of the Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune: ------------------------- Tuesday, July 14, 1998

Kids Are Listed As Sex Offenders In New Database


The woman's voice was trembling, a mixture of rage and fear. The Sandy mother of five sons had just opened a certified letter from the state Division of Human Services (DHS).

``I am just appalled,'' she said of the letter, which notified her son that his name was on the DHS database containing substantiated cases of child abuse.

The problem? The woman's son is only 11 years old.

He was informed of his right to due process under a new state law that took effect July 1. By signing and returning the letter to the agency, he would confirm his decision to attend an administrative hearing on his case. A decision in his favor would result in the removal of his name from the database.

In the past two weeks, some 9,700 Utahns alleged to have abused or neglected children between 1988 and 1993 have received the same letter from DHS. Another 15,000 certified letters covering cases from 1994 to the present will soon go out.

The woman's situation is intriguing -- a thorny ethical issue the state Legislature failed to consider when jamming the database review bill into law in the waning hours of the 1998 session.

Her son allegedly sexually molested a 6-year-old neighbor girl in 1993, when he also was 6. State child-protection workers investigated the complaint, but according to records in the case, they never contacted the boy or his parents.

And now the boy -- whose mother says has benefited from intensive therapy and lives a normal life -- faces the specter of remaining on the database into adulthood.

Should that happen, officials with the departments of Human Services and Health will have access to his record and eventually can deny him a license to adopt or foster children, provide child care or work in a number of child-welfare jobs. The database is not open to the public.

``My son was 6 when this occurred. We addressed the problem and we've moved on,'' the woman said. Her name and her son's name are being withheld to protect their privacy.

DHS officials and legislators say they empathize with the woman. Ken Patterson, the director of the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS), even says the complaint against the boy -- which involved three very young children and was substantiated by a caseworker without ever interviewing the boy or his parents -- may have been ``misapplied.''

But child-protection workers stand solidly behind the legislation that requires the database review. They say it guards children from potential abuse by child-care providers, foster parents and others -- people who should be held to an extra-high standard when dealing with children.

And it allows people who may not have known their names were on file -- such as the Sandy mother and her son -- to make things right, officials say.

``I don't see this as a problem,'' says Kristin Brewer, director of the state's Office of the Guardian ad Litem, which represents children's legal interests in child-welfare proceedings.

``This is supposed to be a good thing. The state is giving these people due process. But let's remember what the database is for. To protect children.''

Since the letters went out, the 30 DHS offices around the state have seen a marked increase in open-records requests for child-abuse-complaint reports, said agency spokesman Randy Ripplinger. In the Salt Lake City office -- the largest in the state -- requests jumped from about 12 a day before the mailings to 35 to 50 a day after.

Another angry parent decided to visit her wrath directly on the Salt Lake office. She stormed into the building last week, certified letter in hand.

Her 12-year-old son had been cited as the subject of a substantiated sexual-abuse complaint, said DCFS's Patterson. The boy was five at the time. A child-care worker found him and a 3-year-old girl ``involved in some kind of sex play,'' Patterson says.

And now the woman fears her son, should he ever seek a license to work with children, will pay the consequences of his innocent behavior.

DHS Director Robin Arnold-Williams feared precisely these situations when she recently addressed the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Committee. While Arnold-Williams supports the database review, she warned the panel of the ethical ramifications of including juveniles in the pool.

``What should we do when the perpetrator is a child?'' Arnold-Williams asked. ``Traditionally our society has been more forgiving of juveniles than adults. We have tended to expunge a juvenile record when the child reaches adulthood, but in this case the statute does not allow that.''

It seems no one in Utah's child-welfare system has a perfect answer to this problem. Even Brewer, arguably one of the state's staunchest protectors of children, has no simple answer.

``Certainly I sympathize with the 5- or 6-year-old in the database,'' she said. ``But I would not the feel the same toward a 12-year-old perpetrator.

``Dealing with the really young children is an issue the entire system is grappling with. It's very hard to know where to draw the line and to know at what point the youngest children are aware of what constitutes abusive behavior.''

It is easy to see how the issue of juveniles in the database was overlooked, given that it passed in the final, frenzied hours of the 1998 legislative session.

In committee, the debate often became mired in arguments over children's vs. adults' rights. The main hurdle was how far back in the 20-year-old database the agency should go in seeking out alleged abusers.

In the end, legislators decided to go back only 10 years. No one seemed pleased.

Names placed in the database before 1988 will not completely disappear. They remain in a larger records system accessible only by a few child-protection workers for investigative purposes.

``We've got to go back into the bill in the interim and correct these problems,'' says Rep. Brent Haymond, R-Springville, chairman of the Child Welfare Oversight Committee. ``Like a lot of bills, this one should have been shoeshined a couple of years before it came to the floor.''

Which is small comfort to the Sandy mother, who still wonders why calmer minds failed to prevail during last session's debate.

``I'm not a real positive person to begin with,'' she said. ``And I worry the way the law is now it's just going to close the door on my boy.''

--------------------------------------------- The "Awakening Lions," a parents group dedicated to stopping unwarrented governmental intrusion upon their families, can help you find out if you are listed on statewide child abuse registries.

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