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Secret list is danger to children -- from DHS
http://www.portland.com/viewpoints/mvoice/010721abuse.shtml
Portland Press Herald
Saturday, July 21, 2001
MAINE VOICES: Richard Wexler
Secret list is danger to children -- from DHS
Just when it seems that nothing more that happens in Maine can shock me,
something new turns up: In this case, the fact that Maine's lack of due
process for people listed in the computerized database of alleged child
abusers maintained by the Department of Human Services may well be the
worst system in the nation.
I am aware of no other state that both lacks any way to appeal the
decision (really the guess) of one caseworker and releases the information
to potential employers. (Florida, for example, doesn't allow appeals, but
it doesn't release the information either.)
The analysis by a University of Maine law professor, Jennifer Wriggins,
that the list does no harm because no one has a right to a particular job,
is contradicted by two federal court decisions.
In Valmonte vs. Bane, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that
even though New York state does have an appeals process, it is inadequate
precisely because a listing in the state's central register of alleged
child abusers almost always deprives the accused of employment in their
chosen field. Wriggins may not be aware of such a right, but this
appellate court is.
The second decision, handed down by a federal district court in Illinois
just three months ago, is even more sweeping. In the case of DuPuy vs.
McDonald that court found the entire central register process
unconstitutional on a variety of grounds, including the fact that, while
it was possible to appeal, the process was incredibly cumbersome and
lengthy. The decision, and one of the cases that led to it, were featured
on an hour-long special edition of Dateline NBC.
One key point that was common to both cases: It turned out that in both
Illinois and New York, when people did manage to appeal, the original
finding of abuse or neglect was overturned 75 percent of the time. Perhaps
that's the real reason there is no appeals process in Maine.
The Valmonte case was brought by a member of the board of directors of the
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. DuPuy was brought by a
former NCCPR board member. Maine Equal Justice Partners is familiar with
both cases.
Most alarming, however - but certainly to be expected - is the DHS claim
that the issue is one that "balances" rights of parents and children. As
it has before, DHS is using children as rhetorical human shields behind
which to hide failed policies.
The fact is, depriving people of employment based on rumor and innuendo is
enormously harmful to children in a number of ways:
If a parent can't get work, that's going to affect his or her children.
If information based on little more than a caseworker's guess is allowed
to pile up in secret files, sooner or later some DHS worker is likely to
claim that there is a "pattern" and use that as the basis to take away
that person's children.
If unfounded reports are kept on parents, children need protection from
the mindless piling up of rumor and innuendo in files about their
families. These are files on people who are so innocent that the meager
amount of evidence needed for one worker to substantiate the allegation,
entirely on her own authority, couldn't be found.
If keeping such reports provides an incentive for people to use the system
for harassment. Make enough anonymous calls, set off enough
investigations, and sooner or later something is bound to stick. (This is
the one place where I disagree with the paper's editorial on this issue.
Reports deemed unfounded should be eliminated from DHS files precisely
because this information is far more likely to implicate the innocent than
the guilty.)
If you make it too easy for a worker to accuse the most convenient
suspects, list them as "substantiated" child abusers and move on, there is
a good chance that in situations where there really is abuse, the wrong
person will be accused - and someone who really is guilty will never be
caught.
And, perhaps most important, if children themselves are listed as child
abusers. In the DuPuy case the accused was a 10-year-old girl who was
accused of sexual abuse after she pulled on the pants of some much younger
boys who were "playing doctor" in the day care home run by her family.
As the appeals process dragged on and on, the child became so depressed
that at one point she attempted suicide. Perhaps Professor Wriggins can
explain how this child was protected by the state.
And finally, as to DHS saying they're willing to set up an appeals process
if they get more money: What DHS is in effect saying is this: "We'll make
sure terrible things don't happen to you or your family - if you pay us."
This is a protection racket. There should be no surcharge on
constitutional rights.
Richard Wexler Executive Director National Coalition for Child Protection
Reform 53 Skyhill Road (Suite 202) Alexandria VA 22314 Phone/fax:
(703) 212-2006 Website:  http://www.nccpr.org/
PPHerald Home:  http://www.portland.com/
Copyright  Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

 

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