The Accused

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

Mondragon also points out that there are protections built into the process to counter false accusations. One of those is the ability to appeal the listing before an administrative-law judge -- the path taken by Clifford Brown. Another is the legal penalty for false reporting. "The issue of false accusations is really handled at the county level," she says. "The Central Registry can only look at the investigation that was conducted by the county and see whether it meets the burden of proof for a listing [in a contested case]. We don't conduct our own investigations."

But bad information provided by individual counties is one of the problems that state auditors found with the Central Registry when they examined it back in 1990.

Of the 153 files the auditors reviewed that year, 14 percent didn't contain enough information to support listing the alleged perpetrator; specifically, eleven files contained no information regarding the incident of abuse or neglect; in five files, names were misspelled, or more than one birth date was provided; three files contained discrepancies in the perpetrators' identities; two files contained only the copy of the registry reporting but no other supporting documents, and one file even stated that the abuse in question was unconfirmed. Between 1987 and 1989, 12 percent of the names on the registry had to be removed because the files had been lost or because they contained insufficient evidence.

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.

"The registry contains a high degree of inaccurate information," the report reads. "Alleged perpetrators may suffer harm by having their names put on the registry without justifiable reasons."

The 1990 audit also found that many people who should have been on the registry were not.

"We reviewed case files in ten counties throughout the state. Of the 76 confirmed incidents of abuse and neglect in the case files we reviewed, 37 of them (49 percent) did not appear on the registry," the auditors wrote. "We also found that the registry does not include the names of all persons convicted of child-abuse related felonies. We tested whether the registry contained the names of 30 felons convicted of child abuse or neglect between 1985 and 1989. Eleven of the 30 (37 percent) were not listed on the registry."

That is still a problem, Mondragon says, but it's one that's beyond her control. Last year, the legislature passed a bill mandating that those who have been convicted of crimes against children be included on the registry; in that same bill, however, previous language requiring courts to provide that information to the Central Registry was stricken.

"If someone is convicted of a crime against a child, that person should be on our database, but human-services departments aren't involved in every single investigation of a child being harmed," she adds. "Law enforcement is the primary investigator in a lot of third-party cases, and they don't always provide reports to the county's human-services department. There was a horrendous case two or three years ago in which a man killed his niece. Law enforcement and victims' assistants were involved, but human services was never notified, so that individual was never listed."

Following the 1990 review, auditors provided the Central Registry staff with numerous recommendations for improving the accuracy of the registry, including conducting regular reviews of case files handed over by human-services departments; providing more training to county caseworkers; working with counties to provide more complete reports; and implementing an automatic alias check. The Central Registry's staff pledged at that time to address the problems.

A new audit of the Central Registry is currently under way. Mondragon says she won't be able to determine whether the issues identified in the 1990 audit have been fixed until the new one comes out. She can't comment on the specifics of the current review, which has been in progress since June. The auditor's office plans to release its findings to the legislative audit committee in early December; after that, it will become available to the public.

If there was ever a good time to address the problems of the Central Registry, it's now.

In August, Colorado Department of Human Services Executive Director Marva Hammons assembled a 36-member work group made up of caseworkers, children's advocates and child-placement representatives to suggest more changes to the Central Registry. "In the coming year, alternatives to the present operation will be evaluated to determine if a more effective system can be developed," Hammons wrote in an August 1 letter to the group. "It is time to examine what the CRCP has evolved to and what it should be."

"The Central Registry is really a lightning rod," says Pam Hinish, deputy director of child-welfare services for the CDHS and chair of the work group. "We're always getting questions about the Central Registry from legislators and their constituents. There's a lot of confusion about the criminal versus the civil process and about the burden of proof. Marva wanted us to look at the purpose of the Central Registry and provide a status report for where it is now.

"The Central Registry keeps growing," she adds. "As the law changes and due process increases, the need for more resources increases. The question is: Will it continue to grow forever, or are there parts that aren't needed anymore?"

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