The Accused

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

The list of recommended changes involves eliminating some of the bureaucracy and defining unclear legal terminology.

Under the current law, the director of the Central Registry must remove the name of someone who is on the list for a minor offense after six months if he is eligible for good cause expungement; if the director feels that he still needs to be tracked, and if he never requested that his name be removed, she is required to inform him of a hearing to keep his name on the registry. Many people believe the burden should be on the offender to request a hearing, however, so a recommendation was made by the committee to keep names on the list unless the offender indicates otherwise.

Another recommended change is to define the term "prudent parent." Right now, the standards used to determine neglect are the same for child-care workers as they are for parents, since such employees must take the actions that a prudent parent would in caring for kids. Members of the work group argued that child-care workers should be held to a higher standard than parents because they are paid and trained to care for children. Before that bar can be raised, however, they need to develop criteria for what constitutes a "prudent parent" -- one of the many ambiguous terms that appear in the statute.

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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Some members felt that spending time on such minor changes got in the way of more meaningful discussion; there was concern that three group meetings were not sufficient to fully examine the registry.

As executive director of the Colorado Association of Family and Children's Agencies, which represents nonprofit adoption agencies, child-placement agencies and residential treatment centers, Karen Silverman hears about a lot of the problems her member agencies have had with the Central Registry.

For instance, says Silverman, sometimes the director of a child-care facility is placed on the registry for an incident that occurred when the director wasn't even on the premises. "I've heard some caseworkers say that they place someone on the registry if there's any sort of injury at a facility, even if it may have been an accident," she says. "There's a 'Someone's going to pay' mentality."

There was some discussion at the final group gathering in September about changing the law to prevent directors of child-care facilities from being placed on the Central Registry for incidents seemingly beyond their control. But that idea was quickly dismissed because people feared that making such a blanket policy could end up hurting children; they also felt that sometimes directors should be punished for incidents that take place at their agency, because there could be a pattern of neglect that only the director can address.

"Do we worry more about the stigma of the adults who are being accused or the safety of children? That's our public-policy question, and it's tough," says Silverman, a member of the work group. "We'll always err on the side of child safety, as we should, but there's room to improve that balance."

Silverman also believes that the newer employment-screening part of the registry should be separate from the law-enforcement function. Accusations of abuse and neglect at child-care facilities could be handled instead by the state licensing department, which is already in charge of monitoring problems in foster homes, daycare centers and residential treatment centers, she says, and might be a more neutral investigator.

"Staff members at child-care facilities become paranoid after they hear about a colleague being placed on the Central Registry," Silverman says. "We have a hard enough time retaining and attracting employees in child care because they're not paid well, the hours are long, and there are some really hard kids to deal with. When they know there's a threat of being placed on the registry, that's just one more reason not to do this work."

Silverman would like to study how other states have structured their central registries; although 43 states have such databases, no one here has taken a thorough look at them. Silverman knows that Arizona's human-services licensing department -- not its Central Registry division -- handles abuse allegations at child-care facilities. "They have two totally separate systems. Does it work better as a result? I don't know, but I'd like to find out," she says.

Utah's registry is used to screen school employees, which is something some members of the work group mentioned they'd like to see here. No one has ever lobbied the legislature to allow Colorado school districts to check the Central Registry when hiring teachers or other school employees; school districts can only check it when they're conducting an investigation into an employee who has been accused of abuse while on the job at the school district.

When that came up for discussion, some members cautioned the group to be wary of expanding access to the registry because it will become harder to figure out where to draw the line: If every organization that employs people who come into contact with kids -- from Boy Scout and Girl Scout leaders to martial-arts instructors -- could search the registry, the statute would be far more cumbersome than it is now.

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