Justice Come Lately

The state has finally burned its little black book of accused child abusers.

For more than thirty years, the Colorado Department of Human Services has been keeping a list of people who may have abused or neglected a child. Not people who were convicted or even charged with committing such a crime -- just people who social workers believe might have.

State legislators created the Central Registry of Child Protection in 1969 to be a one-stop shop for information on child abusers. Police officers, doctors and caseworkers could use it to monitor abusers as they moved from one county to another. In 1992, child-care employers were granted access to the registry to determine whether a prospective employee was listed. For example, if a foster care parent was on the list for neglect or non-sexual assault, she wouldn't be able to get off of it -- and would be unable to be a foster parent or to adopt a child -- until her alleged victim's 28th birthday. People accused of sexually abusing a child were to remain on the list forever ("The Accused," November 1, 2001).

Over the years, the legislature repeatedly tinkered with the registry amid criticism that the ever-expanding list was unfair, even unconstitutional. A 1990 audit found numerous people who, because of insufficient evidence, should not have been on the registry. Some files contained discrepancies in the alleged offenders' identities. Some misspelled the person's name or contained more than one birth date. Other files had been lost entirely. And in many cases, convicted child abusers weren't even on the registry.

Another audit, conducted in 2001, revealed that those same problems still existed. Of 1,589 people identified on a judicial-department database as having been acquitted of child-abuse charges after June 2000, 191 remained on the Central Registry. And of 1,136 people who had been convicted of child abuse or neglect, 305 were not on the Central Registry, which had grown to include 114,000 people.

If Randall Zimmerman was on the list, no one ever told him. But since he worked with kids, chances are good he was. And finding a job, even after his acquittal, could have proven difficult because of it. Now he and numerous others like him will no longer have to worry about having a black mark by their names, since state representative Tambor Williams helped get the registry abolished this year.

"That audit and previous audits showed that problems kept getting worse and worse in terms of reliability and accuracy," says Williams, who sponsored the bill along with state senator Norma Anderson.

Governor Bill Owens agreed and signed the bill on April 29. Now instead of a registry of alleged abusers, law-enforcement agencies and child-care employers will simply check people against arrest reports and a database of court records. "Those systems do the job that the Central Registry was trying to do," Williams says. "We wanted to figure out a way to protect kids without falsely accusing people, and I think this law does that."


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