The Accused

Colorado keeps an extensive list of suspected child abusers, but is anyone checking it twice?

The 69-year-old woman shuffled into the courtroom slowly, towing an oxygen tank behind her. She'd made the trip to the Chancery building at 1120 Lincoln Street to defend herself, to explain to an administrative-law judge that, no, she hadn't given her two-year-old grandson a blow job, as her former daughter-in-law had alleged.

The situation would have been funny had it not been so sad -- and serious. The woman's son was trying to gain full custody of his little boy because he didn't like the lifestyle to which his ex-wife, a stripper, was exposing the toddler. But the boy's mother wasn't going to give up easily. One morning, she'd claimed, while the boy was at her house, he'd reached over and patted her vagina. (She was sitting on her bed naked with her legs spread while talking on the phone, she later explained to the court.) She'd asked him who taught him to do that, and he reportedly said, "Nini," his word for "Grandma." The mother claimed that when she had pressed him further, she learned that his Nini was sexually abusing him, so she called the police, and they, in turn, notified the Denver Department of Human Services.

The police tried to question the two-year-old, but he wouldn't talk, and investigators could find no evidence of abuse, so they didn't file charges against the grandmother.

Susan and Clifford Brown say they'll never be foster parents again because of the Central Registry.
James Bludworth
Susan and Clifford Brown say they'll never be foster parents again because of the Central Registry.
Attorney Rowe Stayton has worked on more than 300 Central Registry cases.
James Bludworth
Attorney Rowe Stayton has worked on more than 300 Central Registry cases.

Even so, based solely on the mom's accusations, Human Services had submitted the grandmother's name to the Central Registry of Child Protection, a state-administered list of child abusers.

Now the woman and her attorney were fighting to get her name erased from the registry. At the court proceeding, the boy's father testified that his ex-wife had fabricated the story in an effort to keep custody of their son. At the end of the hearing, the judge issued his ruling from the bench -- a departure from the standard procedure of delivering opinions in writing sometime after the hearing. Declaring that it was unlikely that this older woman had performed oral sex on her grandson, the judge ordered that her name be removed from the Central Registry.

That was back in 1989. It was one of Rowe Stayton's first Central Registry cases, but he says that under the current law, it's still too easy to get onto the registry and too difficult for the falsely accused to get their names removed.

"The harm that is inflicted on families does not balance the benefit the state gains with the Central Registry," says Stayton, who has represented between 300 and 400 clients fighting to get their names off the list.

The Central Registry was created by the Colorado Legislature more than thirty years ago to help authorities keep track of victims and to monitor child abusers as they moved from one place to another. Initially accessible only to doctors, law enforcement and human-services officials, it has since expanded into an employment-screening resource for state-licensed daycare centers, residential child-care facilities and child-placement agencies. Unlike Colorado's Convicted Sex Offender Registry, which requires criminals to add their names to lists maintained by local police and sheriff's departments and is accessible to the public, the Central Registry is a civil tracking tool, meaning that people on the list don't have to have been convicted of a crime. In fact, they don't even have to have been charged with a crime. Nor do they need to have had a dependency-and-neglect petition filed against them.

To place someone on the registry, all a caseworker or police officer has to do is "confirm" that an incident of child abuse or neglect happened; the legal standard used to confirm a case of abuse is preponderance of the evidence, however, which means only that the investigator must believe that the incident was more likely than not to have occurred.

Sometimes that confirmation is backed up by a great deal of supporting evidence, but other times it comes down to simply taking a child's word over an adult's. Anyone can be placed on the Central Registry: daycare workers, residential child-care employees, adoptive parents, biological parents, foster parents, neighbors, grandparents -- even children. Approximately 114,000 Coloradans are currently on the list.

People who are placed on the list for child neglect or non-sexual child abuse stay on it until ten years after the victim's eighteenth birthday. Those who are either on the list for a sexual offense or who have been convicted of the same abuse that is at issue in their Central Registry case -- whether it's sexual or not -- remain on the registry forever. For people hoping to work in a daycare center or become foster parents, being on the Central Registry almost guarantees that they will be out of luck. But even people who don't work in the child-care industry often fight to get off the list, because being identified by the government as a child abuser is humiliating and infuriating.

Pieces of the statute that created the registry have been amended numerous times over the years, and parts of it may undergo further changes this legislative session. A state audit of the registry, due out in December, may reveal additional flaws with the system. But critics say that until the law as a whole is scrutinized, the delicate balance between protecting children and ensuring due process for adults will remain elusive.

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