ANNAPOLIS – The Court of Appeals Thursday reaffirmed its position that accused child abusers are entitled to “full contested” hearings before their names are added to a state registry.
The ruling stemmed from protests by three people accused of abuse — a Frederick County public school teacher, an Anne Arundel County private school teacher and a Montgomery County day-care provider. They are not identified in court documents.
The three complained that they were not allowed to defend themselves in court before being listed on two state databases of child abuse cases, the Automated Master File and the Client Information System.
They said the state’s use of the two databases was simply a “shell game” to get around a 1996 court ruling that guaranteed accused abusers a hearing before they could be listed on a central registry.
In response to the 1996 ruling, the state disbanded its “Child Abuse and Neglect Central Registry.” But the court said Thursday that the two surviving registries were substantially the same as the central list.
“Because the AMF and CIS registries are statewide, comprehensive databases containing information identifying suspected child abusers, available on a statewide basis, these databases constitute central registries,” Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote.
Currently, a county department of social services can list cases on one of the databases anytime there is an allegation of abuse or neglect. After an investigation, the department can find the charges “indicated,” “unsubstantiated” or “ruled out.”
When a case is ruled out, it is expunged from the database within 120 days, according to court records. But unsubstantiated cases are maintained in the files for five years and investigations that indicate abuse can remain in the files indefinitely.
The subjects of the investigations are limited to contesting those findings before an administrative law judge.
“It is important to note that the informal nature of (the) hearings allows for no presentation of evidence or testimony by the accused,” Cathell wrote.
A department’s finding carries no specific penalty, but an attorney for the Frederick teacher argued that merely being included on the list is damaging.
“It is evidence that follows people around and keeps them from getting licensed and keeps them from getting a job,” said Christyne L. Neff. “The fact that the finding is there feeds on itself.”
The charge that her client, an industrial arts teacher, burned a student with a hot tool was later found to be unsubstantiated. The teacher is still on staff.
While access to the databases is limited, Neff noted that employers can ask job applicants to waive their confidentiality rights.
“A good way of turning it around is to ask what employer would hire a person who had an indication of child abuse in the database,” Neff said.
But Assistant Attorney General Sandra Barnes disagreed.
“I don’t see how that’s any different than asking somebody in an interview if they’ve ever been investigated for child abuse,” she said.
Barnes said that limiting the information that can be put on the databases will make it harder for government departments to work together, and opens the door to duplicate investigations of the same case.
“We may lack the ability to know that some report is being investigated in another jurisdiction,” she said.