The Accused

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

An administrator with the Fort Collins branch of the Jacob Center, who did not want to be identified, confirmed that the Colorado Springs branch closed a couple of years ago, but he did not know the exact reason why.

Carol didn't attend any of the hearings; according to court documents, her therapist said her psychological health "would be substantially impaired if she were forced to testify." The Browns don't know whether Carol was ever punished for making the false report, a Class 3 misdemeanor, but they're certain she has no idea what she put them through. Still, they blame the Jacob Center and the human-services department more than they blame her.

"I'm angry that she made this accusation, but she's been through so much, and she's just not well," Susan says. "They should have known better than to place her with us."

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.

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The Central Registry was created in 1969 as a one-stop source of information in which all reports of child abuse and neglect could be monitored by police, caseworkers and doctors. A nine-person staff employed by the state was created as the gatekeeper of the list, protecting against unauthorized access to the names.

For nearly twenty years, any report of abuse or neglect from a county human-services department automatically resulted in the alleged abuser's name being added to the list. That changed in 1987, when a revision to the law required caseworkers to have credible evidence of abuse -- in addition to a report -- before submitting someone's name.

With that higher standard came an appeals process in which people who are added to the list are given the opportunity to request that their names be removed. If the Central Registry staff denies a request for removal, the alleged perpetrator can schedule a hearing before an administrative-law judge. If a judge rules that the person's name should remain on the list, that individual can appeal to a higher court.

The law changed again in 1992 to give child-care employers access to the registry. This was the result of pressure from children's advocates who argued that the increased demand for daycare in the 1980s had led to a desire for more safety precautions in child-care facilities. Because jobs were at stake with this change, the burden of proof for submitting names to the registry was raised again. This time, it required a preponderance of evidence.

This past summer, the rules governing the Central Registry were tinkered with again. People who have been accused of minor offenses (one-time incidents not involving sexual abuse) but who don't appeal the listing themselves can now have their names removed from the registry after six months if they stay out of trouble. Before that, people were eligible for "good cause expungement," as it's called, after two years.

Of the more than 114,000 people on the registry, 81 percent are biological parents. About 7 percent are described as "other caretakers" and 4 percent as "non-caretakers." Almost 2 percent are child-care providers, while fewer than 1 percent are foster parents or employees of residential child-care facilities. The remaining 5 percent are listed as "unknown" because the law does not allow those involved in ongoing due-process hearings to be described.

Half of the alleged perpetrators are women. And although most of the people on the list are between the ages of 31 and 35, there are children on the registry as well. Roughly 6.5 percent are between the ages of sixteen and twenty; 3 percent are in the eleven-to-fifteen age group; and just under 1 percent are ten and under.

The vast majority of cases involve neglect. Of the 7,467 child victims in the cases reported to the Central Registry last year, 72 percent had been neglected, 27 percent had been physically abused, 16 percent had been psychologically or emotionally abused, 14 percent had been sexually abused, and 7 percent had been medically neglected. (The figures exceed 100 percent because some children suffered more than one form of abuse.)

Although Shirley Mondragon, the director of the Central Registry, only has statistics dating back a couple of years, she says the total number of people on the list has been fairly steady. She says it's typical for 20 to 25 percent of the alleged perpetrators to challenge their listing each year. For the last couple of years, the outcome of those appeals has remained constant: One third of the people who appealed their cases had their names removed from the registry, one third lost their appeals, and the remaining third settled out of court. In some settlements, the alleged perpetrator gets a reduction in the number of years his name is on the registry; other times, a perpetrator's name is removed from the registry after he's completed treatment.

One of the most frequent complaints about the registry is that people who have never been charged with a crime wind up on the list. "I understand what people must feel when they're accused, because it has such an ogre-like view to it," says Mondragon. "But people see this as a label rather than as a one-time listing. Whenever people talk about being placed on the registry when there's been no criminal conviction, I try to educate them about the difference between criminal and civil procedures. People lose certain freedoms in the criminal procedure because they can be fined or incarcerated. Yes, they may not be able to be employed in a child-care setting if their name appears on the Central Registry, but in the civil process, there's a push to work with the family and remediate the situation. Families are not going to get that if they go down the criminal path. I always like to remind people of the JonBenét case; there you had a child who was killed, and the criminal investigation wasn't able to prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt."

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