The 69-year-old woman shuffled into the courtroom slowly, towing an oxygen tank behind her. She'd made the trip to the Chancery building at 1120 Lincoln Street to defend herself, to explain to an administrative-law judge that, no, she hadn't given her two-year-old grandson a blow job, as her former daughter-in-law had alleged.
The situation would have been funny had it not been so sad -- and serious. The woman's son was trying to gain full custody of his little boy because he didn't like the lifestyle to which his ex-wife, a stripper, was exposing the toddler. But the boy's mother wasn't going to give up easily. One morning, she'd claimed, while the boy was at her house, he'd reached over and patted her vagina. (She was sitting on her bed naked with her legs spread while talking on the phone, she later explained to the court.) She'd asked him who taught him to do that, and he reportedly said, "Nini," his word for "Grandma." The mother claimed that when she had pressed him further, she learned that his Nini was sexually abusing him, so she called the police, and they, in turn, notified the Denver Department of Human Services.
The police tried to question the two-year-old, but he wouldn't talk, and investigators could find no evidence of abuse, so they didn't file charges against the grandmother.
Even so, based solely on the mom's accusations, Human Services had submitted the grandmother's name to the Central Registry of Child Protection, a state-administered list of child abusers.
Now the woman and her attorney were fighting to get her name erased from the registry. At the court proceeding, the boy's father testified that his ex-wife had fabricated the story in an effort to keep custody of their son. At the end of the hearing, the judge issued his ruling from the bench -- a departure from the standard procedure of delivering opinions in writing sometime after the hearing. Declaring that it was unlikely that this older woman had performed oral sex on her grandson, the judge ordered that her name be removed from the Central Registry.
That was back in 1989. It was one of Rowe Stayton's first Central Registry cases, but he says that under the current law, it's still too easy to get onto the registry and too difficult for the falsely accused to get their names removed.
"The harm that is inflicted on families does not balance the benefit the state gains with the Central Registry," says Stayton, who has represented between 300 and 400 clients fighting to get their names off the list.
The Central Registry was created by the Colorado Legislature more than thirty years ago to help authorities keep track of victims and to monitor child abusers as they moved from one place to another. Initially accessible only to doctors, law enforcement and human-services officials, it has since expanded into an employment-screening resource for state-licensed daycare centers, residential child-care facilities and child-placement agencies. Unlike Colorado's Convicted Sex Offender Registry, which requires criminals to add their names to lists maintained by local police and sheriff's departments and is accessible to the public, the Central Registry is a civil tracking tool, meaning that people on the list don't have to have been convicted of a crime. In fact, they don't even have to have been charged with a crime. Nor do they need to have had a dependency-and-neglect petition filed against them.
To place someone on the registry, all a caseworker or police officer has to do is "confirm" that an incident of child abuse or neglect happened; the legal standard used to confirm a case of abuse is preponderance of the evidence, however, which means only that the investigator must believe that the incident was more likely than not to have occurred.
Sometimes that confirmation is backed up by a great deal of supporting evidence, but other times it comes down to simply taking a child's word over an adult's. Anyone can be placed on the Central Registry: daycare workers, residential child-care employees, adoptive parents, biological parents, foster parents, neighbors, grandparents -- even children. Approximately 114,000 Coloradans are currently on the list.
People who are placed on the list for child neglect or non-sexual child abuse stay on it until ten years after the victim's eighteenth birthday. Those who are either on the list for a sexual offense or who have been convicted of the same abuse that is at issue in their Central Registry case -- whether it's sexual or not -- remain on the registry forever. For people hoping to work in a daycare center or become foster parents, being on the Central Registry almost guarantees that they will be out of luck. But even people who don't work in the child-care industry often fight to get off the list, because being identified by the government as a child abuser is humiliating and infuriating.
Pieces of the statute that created the registry have been amended numerous times over the years, and parts of it may undergo further changes this legislative session. A state audit of the registry, due out in December, may reveal additional flaws with the system. But critics say that until the law as a whole is scrutinized, the delicate balance between protecting children and ensuring due process for adults will remain elusive.
Clifford Brown hates lies. As a child, if he fudged the truth even a little, his dad would somehow know, and Clifford would feel the blush of shame heating his cheeks. His dad once showed him what it's like to be the person on the other end of a lie by purposely deceiving him. Clifford can't recall the substance of that deceit now, but he remembers how it felt, and he grew up sharing his father's disdain for lying. So when one of Clifford's foster daughters told a very serious lie about him, it was the worst thing anyone could have done to him.
Brown and his wife, Susan, became foster parents more than five years ago. Clifford had a daughter from a previous marriage, but he and Susan didn't have any children of their own. After Clifford's daughter, Misty, graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, she got involved with Boys Hope Girls Hope, a nonprofit organization that runs group homes for troubled kids across the country. Misty signed on as a housemother at a boys' home in New York, and the Browns were inspired by her desire to help young people. Plus, with Misty no longer there, the Browns' six-bedroom Colorado Springs home felt empty. A good friend of theirs was a foster parent, so the Browns thought that might be a way for them to help kids. Their friend put them in touch with the now-defunct Colorado Springs branch of the Jacob Center, a child-placement agency, and the Browns took in their first foster daughter in January 1996.
The couple was told that there weren't enough foster parents willing to take troubled teenage girls, so even though they had originally wanted young children, they agreed to foster older kids. And because the placement agency had a policy of not mixing boys and girls, the Browns never had any boys in their home. They usually had four girls at a time, some of whom stayed for only a couple of weeks before being reunited with their families; others remained in the Brown home for more than a year. They had fifteen foster daughters in all.
Clifford and Susan came to love many of the girls as their own. And most of the girls regarded the Browns as their parents; although they addressed them as Cliff and Sue, the girls would introduce them to friends and teachers as Mom and Dad. For many of the girls, it was their first time living in a two-parent home. It was also the first time they'd known stability or been forced to abide by rules.
Sunday is family day in the Brown household, and the Browns liked to take their foster daughters on excursions to the Garden of the Gods or the skating rink or a movie. But one of their rules was that no one left until all of the girls had completed their chores. It wasn't easy dealing with teens who came to their home with troubled pasts that involved sexual abuse or drug and alcohol addictions, but Clifford and Susan believe that kids fare best if they're allowed to make mistakes rather than simply being told what to do.
"Instead of telling them not to drink, I'd tell them that when they go to a party, see how ugly others look when they're drunk," Clifford says. "They'd come home and tell me that what I'd said was true."
"For them to even go out was a major process," Susan says. The Browns had to get permission from the Jacob Center before the girls could go to parties, and the placement agency had to conduct background checks on other kids' parents if the girls were going to sleep at friends' houses.
The Browns also believe that kids learn by example. Although they enjoy a drink of whiskey and a cigarette now and then, they say they never drank or smoked when they had girls in their home. And as devout Christians, they tried to show the girls how faith could help them cope in times of trouble. They credit themselves with helping several of their foster daughters get off drugs and with getting many of them to abstain from sex. In addition, Clifford passed along another of his deeply held values to the girls: the importance of education. While living under his roof, the girls had to stay in school and do their homework; three of them went on to attend community college.
Because of their success with troubled girls, Susan, a real estate broker, and Clifford, who owns a property-maintenance business, say they earned a reputation as one of the best sets of foster parents in El Paso County. Guardians ad litem -- attorneys who are appointed by the court to represent children in child abuse and neglect cases -- would specifically request the Browns when they needed to find homes for girls.
All of that changed after thirteen-year-old Carol came to live with them.
Clifford and Susan didn't know much about Carol before she first arrived except that she'd been sexually abused by her father, who is black. (Her mother is white.) Carol's caseworker thought the Browns would be an ideal match because Clifford is black and Susan is white; having foster parents similar to her own, the caseworker figured, would help Carol learn to trust adults again. (Carol's name has been changed because she is a juvenile.)
The only other thing the Browns knew about Carol was that she had once been court-ordered not to be around animals, but the caseworker assured the Browns, who have three dogs, that she no longer posed a threat to pets.
Clifford and Susan first met Carol at a pre-placement visit at their house in April 1998. They could see she had problems, but they weren't too concerned. However, Misty, who was home for a visit, had a bad feeling about the girl. "Misty told us to make sure we lock our doors at night, because she seems like the kind of girl who will stab you in your sleep," says Susan, who brushed off the warning. "When we got her, we didn't think her issues were any more severe than any of the other girls'. They all had various problems." But none of their previous experiences had prepared the Browns for Carol.
Carol moved in with the Browns on June 2, 1998. Shortly thereafter, a psychologist performed a routine evaluation on her. "He asked us if we were sure we wanted to take her," Susan remembers. "If I'd asked him why he said that, he wouldn't have been able to tell me anything because of doctor-patient confidentiality." So Susan asked the Jacob Center for Carol's case file; she wanted to know more about the girl. But the Jacob Center ignored the request.
It didn't take long for the Browns to see why the psychologist was concerned.
One afternoon, Carol asked if she could bathe the couple's puppy, a fluffy white Samoyed, and the Browns said yes. When Carol brought the puppy upstairs from his bath, though, his eyes had rolled back in his head and he was convulsing. Susan rushed him to the vet, but the doctor could find no medical cause for the seizure; the dog, who recovered from the inexplicable attack, hasn't had one since.
Then things began to turn up missing in the house. Some of Clifford's rings had vanished sometime earlier, including one that Susan's father had left him when he died. The other girls in the home noticed that some of their belongings were gone, too, and they accused Carol of stealing them. Tensions started to rise between the girls, who had all gotten along before Carol arrived; they didn't seem to trust each other anymore. Carol would tell one girl that another had badmouthed her, but when the girls started talking among themselves, they discovered that Carol had been making up stories in an apparent effort to pit them against each other. They confronted Carol about the lies and theft at weekly family meetings that the Browns held in their living room, and Carol was forced to fess up.
But things didn't improve. One night, Carol started a fire in a trash can in the basement while another girl was sleeping downstairs. Surprised that the smoke alarm hadn't sounded, Susan went to the basement to investigate and discovered that the battery was missing. "At that point, I asked if the Jacob Center would find another place for her, because I was concerned about our safety and the safety of the other girls," Susan says.
Eventually, Susan decided to log all of the incidents so that the Jacob Center would know the severity of Carol's problems, but the agency's therapist didn't respond right away. And the placement agency didn't seem to be looking for another home for the girl. So Susan and Clifford took things one day at a time.
One weekend day in early August, Carol left the house to take one of the dogs for a walk. She was only allowed to be gone for thirty minutes, but she didn't come back for four hours. The Browns later found out from another foster daughter that Carol had gone to her boyfriend's house. (She'd met the boy while they were both living at the Devereux Cleo Wallace residential treatment center; he still lived there during the week but stayed with a foster family on weekends.) When she finally returned home, Susan demanded to know where she'd been.
"She closed her mouth tight and wouldn't say anything," Susan says. "I told her to sit in a chair and wait until Clifford came home."
People at the Jacob Center had offered advice to the Browns about how to get troubled teens to open up to them. They suggested taking the girls on short car rides when they needed to discuss things; that way the girls wouldn't have to make eye contact with the foster parent and would not feel as intimidated about talking. Clifford was always the one who handled those car trips because, as Susan says, "he's the listener. They usually tell him the truth, and he's better at seeing if they're lying."
So Clifford and Carol got into the family van and drove around the neighborhood. Carol told him that she had gone to the park, where she'd met up with a couple of girls who said they had a dog they'd like to mate with hers; she explained to Clifford that she'd gone back to the girls' home to try to breed the dogs. Clifford didn't believe the ludicrous story, but he decided to give Carol a chance to think about what she was saying, so he pulled into a nearby 7-Eleven and bought them both something to drink. After he got back into the van and started driving home, Clifford said, "You'd better tell me the truth, because I hate a liar. If you're lying to me, I wash my hands of you."
"Are you mad at me?" she asked him.
"Yes," he answered.
"Are you really mad at me?" she pushed.
"Yes," he said again.
"Well, do you want to get in the back and have sex?" she asked.
She said this just as Clifford was pulling into the driveway. Dumbfounded, he answered, "Hell, no." But before he had a chance to ask her why she would say such a thing, Carol was out of the van and heading into the house, where she stormed off to her bedroom.
"That blew me away. She just said that out of the blue. I didn't know where that came from. I couldn't conceive of anyone saying something like that to me," Clifford says now.
A few days later, on August 6, Carol told her caseworker that Clifford had fondled her during that van ride. She said Clifford had allowed her to sit on his lap and steer the van while he touched her on the outside of her underwear. She also said that Clifford had a jar of Vaseline in his van and that, while he didn't use it, he explained that it "could be used on the private parts," according to court documents. She went on to explain that Clifford was drinking Crown Royal in the van and that, in fact, he drank whiskey every day. She also accused Clifford of two other instances of sexual abuse and said he'd assaulted another foster daughter.
The first time he'd touched her, Carol claimed, was during a pre-placement visit several months before. She said that after everyone had gone to bed, Clifford slid his hand into her underwear. Clifford denies this, and Susan says Carol was never alone with Clifford during that visit. The other incident Carol reported didn't involve any touching; she told her caseworker that she helped wash the dogs every Saturday morning and that Clifford would always splash water on her T-shirt so he could see her breasts.
The day Carol reported the alleged abuse to her human-services caseworker, the therapist from the Jacob Center finally called Susan back about the list of problems Susan had had with Carol. The therapist told Susan that, based on the girl's past behavior, Carol was probably "getting ready to blow." It was a warning that came too late.
Later that day, Susan picked Carol up from school, and the girl mentioned that her caseworker was planning to call the Browns at 4 p.m., but she offered no reason. Susan assumed it was a routine check-in. When the caseworker called, she instructed Susan to help Carol pack her clothes because the girl would be leaving the Brown home. The caseworker didn't mention the allegations Carol had made; Susan figured the Jacob Center had passed along her complaints about Carol to Human Services and that another placement had been found. She was relieved that Carol was finally going somewhere else.
But when Susan went downstairs to help Carol pack, she discovered that the girl had already gathered her belongings and run away. Susan went to the local police station and filed a runaway report; later that night, an officer found Carol. She'd gone to her boyfriend's house, and when she left his place, she'd taken a dog out of a neighbor's yard; the neighbor called the police, who found Carol roaming the neighborhood with the dog. Since Susan knew the caseworker was planning to remove Carol from their home, she referred the officer to the Jacob Center.
That same night, Carol's biological mother called to speak to her daughter. Susan had met Carol's mother before, but she never knew exactly why she didn't have custody of her daughter. She guesses that it might have been because the mother didn't have a stable home; the woman had gone to a shelter for a while to get away from her abusive husband, and another daughter of hers had been placed in a separate foster home. When Susan told Carol's mother that Carol was no longer living with her, the woman revealed how badly her daughter had been abused: Carol's father had sexually assaulted her since she was three years old, and he sometimes invited his friends to take turns with her. Her father always told her that she deserved the abuse, that it was her penance for being bad. When Susan heard that, Carol's outrageous comment to Clifford in the van kind of made sense: The girl must have equated sex with punishment.
And Carol's mother told Susan other things that explained past events. Carol once had pet guinea pigs that drowned to death after she and some friends had given them a bath. Had the Brown's puppy almost met the same fate? Then there was the time Carol turned the gas all the way up on the kitchen stove in an attempt to asphyxiate her mom and sister. Had she been trying to kill the Browns and the other foster daughters when she set that fire in the basement? Once, Susan had found a knife in Carol's bedroom; Carol had said she was using it to cut a cake she'd made in an Easy-Bake Oven in the basement. After she left the Browns' home, Susan discovered a second knife in her room. Could Misty's earlier prediction have come true?
Susan also learned during that phone call that Carol had fabricated numerous stories about herself. For instance, Carol had told Susan that someone once broke into her mother's house and shot her Rottweiler. But Carol's mother said she had always lived in apartments that didn't allow dogs. "There was no dog. There was no burglary," Susan says.
Susan realized that Carol was far more disturbed than she and Clifford had ever imagined. "I wish we'd known all that, because we wouldn't have taken her," she says. "Even though we went through a lot of training to be foster parents, we weren't equipped to handle that kind of severity. It was a roller-coaster ride with her; there was constantly something, and it really took a toll on us."
The Browns never saw Carol again, and to this day they don't know where she ended up. After she left, Susan and Clifford hoped that things would return to normal. The four other girls who were living with them at the time were happy that Carol was gone, and Susan and Clifford finally felt they could relax.
Then the cops came.
On August 11, Colorado Springs police officers tailed Clifford's van as he pulled away from his home with two of the foster girls. They were going to pick up one of the girls' boyfriends and then go to a concert. But when Clifford got to the boyfriend's house, the officers approached him and told him to head back home; without any explanation, they took the girls in their patrol car and followed him. About five more police cars were waiting outside the Brown house when they arrived. The police asked if they could search the house and the van. Clifford still had no idea why they were there, and Susan was in such shock that she immediately complied. "We had nothing to hide," she says.
Several officers searched their home, but all they took was a bottle of Crown Royal. Next they went through the van, but they emerged empty-handed, so Clifford asked them what they were looking for. "They asked me if I had any Vaseline, and I said yes. I got it out for them from a side compartment," he says, explaining that he kept a jar in his van for his hands, which are always chapped from working with drywall and cement for his maintenance jobs.
"I was so bowled over by all the policemen in the house," says Susan, who can't recall precisely how many there were. "I asked what this was all about, and they said, 'We'll get to that in a minute.' They asked to speak to the girls, and I said they needed to check with the [Jacob Center] to get authorization. After they did that, they pulled one girl at a time into Misty's bedroom. They took me into another room, and that's when they told me about the accusations."
Clifford, who was in his bedroom with the police, still didn't know what was going on. An officer told Clifford to follow him to the police station in downtown Colorado Springs, but before they left, the officers removed all four girls from the home, including one who was emancipated from her biological parents and for whom the Browns had been awarded legal guardianship. The girls were eventually placed in other foster homes.
When they got to the station, the police finally told Clifford about Carol's accusations. Clifford didn't even have time to let the news sink in when they asked him to take a lie-detector test. Clifford didn't hesitate before agreeing. After all, he thought, "What have I got to hide?"
Clifford had suffered a closed-head injury from an auto accident two years before, and ever since, it's taken longer for him to process questions. If someone asks him several questions in quick succession, he will still be thinking about the first one even when he should be answering the third or fourth. He failed the test miserably. Susan and Clifford later found out that people who have closed-head injuries are highly likely to fail lie-detector tests.
Nevertheless, the police never charged Clifford with a crime. All of the other foster daughters had defended him, saying he'd never laid a hand on them and that such an assault would be completely out of character for him. The other girls also told police about Carol's history of theft and deceit.
Not long after the girls had been removed from her home, Susan received a call from Carol's court-appointed special advocate, who had heard that Carol was gone. When Susan confirmed that Carol was no longer at their house, the advocate asked if Carol had made an accusation; she went on to tell Susan that Carol had once falsely accused someone else of abusing her at a residential treatment center.
The caseworker to whom Carol had made the accusation about Clifford turned the matter over to another worker in charge of investigating such claims; that caseworker then questioned the other girls, who told her the same things they'd told police. And when she interviewed Carol, the girl explained that she had never wanted to live with the Browns because she liked staying at Devereux Cleo Wallace with her boyfriend and friends.
The Browns tried to get the girls back but were unsuccessful. "[Human Services] wouldn't return the girls to us since there was an ongoing investigation," Susan recalls. But later, when she spoke with the Jacob Center and pointed out that no charges had been filed, someone from that agency said that Clifford's name would go on the Central Registry. "They told me that as far as the department of human services is concerned, you're guilty until proven innocent and that when a child makes an accusation, they automatically take the child's side until proven otherwise. I can understand that, because for so many years kids weren't believed, but all of the other girls who were interviewed said, 'No way, not Clifford,' and yet they were going to put his name on the registry anyway."
The Jacob Center eventually revoked the Browns' foster-care license.
Susan turned to the Internet for help and found the Web site for VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws), a national organization with a chapter in Colorado. VOCAL recommended that Susan contact attorney Rowe Stayton. When she reached Stayton, he explained what the Central Registry is and how Clifford would have to attend a hearing before an administrative-law judge in order to avoid being placed on it.
Although Clifford's status on the Central Registry was considered "pending," since he hadn't yet had his administrative hearing, the investigating caseworker tried to talk him into dropping his appeal. "She said, 'Oh, his name will only be on there for a couple of years, and no one in the public can access it,'" Susan recalls.
Even so, just knowing his name would be on a government list of child abusers when he had done nothing wrong made Clifford livid. "My name is important to me," he says. "I wasn't going to let them do that to me, because I wasn't guilty."
And so the Browns hired Stayton, gathered witnesses, including Misty and several former foster daughters, and began arguing their case before an administrative-law judge in Colorado Springs. The caseworker who "confirmed" the abuse told the judge that she hadn't read Carol's case file before issuing her finding. But according to court documents, she "believed that 'corroboration of witnesses was not important' because there was corroboration of the evidence by the jar of Vaseline and the Crown Royal bottle."
They completed the first day of testimony on May 12, 1999, but the hearing had to be continued until October 14 because of a full docket. The Browns had to take out a second mortgage on their house to pay $13,000 in legal bills. Susan had to move her real estate business into her home because she could no longer afford the rent or utilities in her office building.
Through a series of subsequent hearings, testimony from the other girls began to poke holes in Carol's story: They told the court that Clifford didn't drink every day, as Carol had alleged; they refuted Carol's claim that she washed the dogs every Saturday; and the other girl whom Carol had accused Clifford of molesting said he'd never touched her. During the hearing, Carol's caseworker said that the girl's behavioral issues included "anger-management problems, poor boundaries, lying, stealing, setting fires, no concern for the consequences of her actions, lack of conscience, poor peer relationships, and poor adult relationships."
Clifford's case was further bolstered when Kendall Scott testified; Scott was the home supervisor for the Jacob Center when Carol was staying at the Brown home and had had weekly meetings with the family. According to court documents, "Ms. Scott was concerned that [Carol] might make an accusation against Mr. Brown because of her history. Ms. Scott testified that it was not a matter of if, but when, [Carol] would make sexual-abuse allegations against Mr. Brown.
"Ms. Scott opined that standard foster-care training was not sufficient to train the Browns in dealing with [Carol]. [Carol] had a history of lying and manipulating. Ms. Scott believed [Carol] should have been placed in a more secure facility. Ms. Scott had concerns that the Jacob Center could potentially be liable because of [Carol's] placement at the Brown home."
That was the first time Susan and Clifford had heard that from Scott. "They knew this and they still placed her with us?" Susan says.
Finally, on February 9, 2000, Administrative Law Judge Cullen Wheelock ruled in Clifford's favor, finding that the El Paso County Department of Human Services had failed to establish that Clifford had abused Carol. "The fact that a jar of Vaseline was kept in the Browns' van and the fact that a bottle of Crown Royal was found at the Browns' house does not prove that Mr. Brown inappropriately touched [Carol]," the judge wrote. Carol's "motivation for creating false allegations against Mr. Brown could reasonably be construed as a way to be removed from the Browns' house and get back to Cleo Wallace.
"The county department and the Jacob Center placed [Carol] in the Brown home even though there was great risk that [Carol] might make some kind of sexual-abuse allegation based on her past history," Wheelock continued. "Based upon [Carol's] known history of abuse, lying, stealing, her history of behavioral problems, and the contradicted evidence from other foster girls, the ALJ concludes that [Carol's] allegations are not a credible basis on which the county department can rely in concluding that the report to the Central Registry is accurate."
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."
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."
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.
"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?"
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.
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.
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.
But Susan and Clifford will never be foster parents again. Although Clifford's name has been cleared and they could reapply for a foster-care license, they have no desire to do so.
"Emotionally and financially, it was just too hard to go through, and we can't afford to risk something like this happening again," Susan says. "How many people have the assets to hire an attorney? We're not wealthy, but at least we owned a home we could borrow from. What about people who rent their homes or who don't have savings? Their name gets placed on the Central Registry, and that really bothers me.
"It does a lot to you inside when you're trying to help someone and you get slapped in the face," she adds. "It makes you not want to stick your neck out and help people anymore. When I hear people talking about wanting to be foster parents, I tell them not to, because all it takes is for one kid to get mad at you and say you touched them. If you don't have $20,000 lying around ready to fight the Central Registry, don't be foster parents."
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