By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
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By Melanie Asmar
To make it less convoluted, Silverman suggests breaking it into three sections: one for interfamilial abuse; one for third-party abuse, in which the perpetrator is not related to the victim; and one for institutional abuse.
"Those are all lumped together in the statute, so it's hard to know what rules apply to whom because they're all different situations," she says. "The law has been tinkered with over the years, but it's never been reviewed as a whole. What it really needs is an overhaul."
The CDHS's Hinish agrees. "The piecemealing in of legislation over the years has made it unwieldy," she says. "Whether it's been child advocates wanting more protections in the law or people who don't want people to be listed unless they've been convicted criminally, the law has grown over the years" to reflect those divergent opinions.
For example, the law was amended in 1999 to create a new category of placement on the registry called "status pending." When someone appeals a listing, Central Registry staff members obtain the investigative file from the county that reported the alleged perpetrator and review it to make sure the evidence meets the preponderance standard. If it does, the person is added to the registry as one whose status is pending the outcome of a hearing rather than as a perpetrator.
Attorney Rowe Stayton says the statute still hasn't moved far enough in the direction of adults' due-process rights, and he says the work group should have included more critics of the registry -- critics like him, for instance. "They need to reach out to the defense. I've had more Central Registry cases than anyone in the state, and they should seek my input," he says. "I'm a father of six, and I'm concerned about child abusers, too. They don't see the people who come into my office and cry. They don't see the woman who has to sell her house because she lost her foster-parent income due to a false report. There's a certain degree of arrogance and condescension among caseworkers; they have this idea that we're defending child abusers and that we're scummy because of it. I've been in hearings where the caseworker mouths 'You're guilty' to my client. It's just appalling."
The work group that Hammons assembled did include a man who claims he was falsely accused of child abuse; he spoke passionately and candidly about what the experience did to his family, but he did not want his name or the particulars of his case to appear in print.
If Hammons, who is supposed to review the group's recommendations sometime this month, agrees with any of the changes, she may seek legislators to sponsor a bill that would incorporate them into the statute.
State senator Penfield Tate, who was invited to join the work group but could not make any of the meetings, says he'd be willing to sponsor legislation to improve the Central Registry. "Concerns about the Central Registry come from two points of view," he says. "From people who get listed but never had a confirmed incident and then never come off the list, and from people in the child-care industry who are concerned that people who ought to be listed are not. My hope was that both sides could sit down side by side and work things out. I want to see if we need a comprehensive overhaul or if more tinkering can plug in the gaps."
Tate has carried bills amending the Central Registry in the past; however, he hadn't heard about the audit and has not yet seen the work group's recommendations. "The value of the Central Registry is tied to its accuracy and its fairness," he adds. "We've got to have a registry that works."
State senator Doug Linkhart and state representative Tambor Williams, who have both sponsored past Central Registry legislation, were also invited to attend the work group meetings, but neither did. Williams, who also sits on the legislative audit committee, believes something needs to change. "The Central Registry has fairly good mechanisms for getting names on the list, but not for getting names off," she says. "There has to be a healthy balance between alerting people about child abusers and branding people."
Hinish is pleased with the outcome of the work group, which she says was completely independent of the audit. "We all agreed that making sweeping changes to [the registry] doesn't make sense," she says. "There will always be the potential for false reporting, but there are tremendous safeguards set up to protect against that. Nothing can be done to totally address the issue of false reporting aside from not having a Central Registry."
Even though Clifford Brown was vindicated in court, he and Susan haven't gotten over the sadness of losing their foster daughters. The girl for whom they'd won legal guardianship eventually returned; she is now living with the couple while she completes college. The rest are living on their own, and the Browns keep in touch with several of them.
Every Christmas, Susan and Clifford buy gifts for several of these girls, and every Father's Day and Mother's Day, the Browns receive cards in return. Their house is filled with tangible reminders of their foster daughters: There are photos on every shelf, along with a large collection of dolphin plates, clocks and figurines (Susan loves dolphins), most of them gifts from the girls.