Child abuse registry continues
By Matthew Franck
Post-DispatchJanuary 15, 2004

Despite being ruled unconstitutional last week, Missouri's system for registering the names of probable child abusers will stay in effect pending a new law or a possible appeal.

Beyond that, no one knows for certain what will become of Missouri's child abuse central registry, which employers count on to screen the names of those who wish to work with children.

Illinois, meanwhile, is facing similar uncertainty as its central registry continues to be the focus of legal challenges.

Missouri's registry system was declared unconstitutional by Cole County Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan, who said it does not provide adequate due process rights to those who may be falsely accused of abuse. In making the ruling, however, Callahan let the current system remain in effect until a better one could be created.

Chris Whitley, associate director of Missouri's Department of Social Services, said the agency is proceeding with "business as usual" in maintaining the registry.

Whitley said the state is still determining whether to appeal the ruling.

In the meantime, the ruling has produced confusion among some child welfare workers and child advocates, some of whom fear hundreds of names on the registry could be tossed out.

"I'm very concerned about the ramifications," said Ruth Ehresman, of the nonprofit group Citizens for Missouri's Children.

But officials on both sides of the lawsuit say the scope of the ruling is limited.

Timothy Belz, a St. Louis lawyer who represented those suing the state, said the ruling does not invite a wide-scale purging of names currently on the registry. Rather, it seeks to guarantee that those accused of child abuse are offered a hearing in advance of having their names placed on the registry.

Callahan's ruling does not describe in detail what kind of central registry system the state should have. But he does set forth due process rights of accused child abusers. Those include the right to a hearing in which the state must show with a "preponderance of evidence" that abuse took place. The current system requires only that a "probable cause" standard be met.

In seeking to strike down Missouri's current system, Belz represented employees of the Heartland Christian Academy, a teen reform school that has used corporal punishment. Several employees of the ministry had been unable to get their names taken off the registry, even though they had been cleared in court of child-abuse allegations.

A similar lawsuit two years ago in Illinois led to new policies dealing with the state's child abuse registry.

Diane Redleaf, a Chicago lawyer who challenged Illinois' system in court, said the state must now offer a hearing before placing a new name on the registry if that person works with children and could have their employment threatened.

Redleaf said she is now seeking to secure those due-process rights for all those whose names might be added to the registry.

Officials say the court rulings in Illinois and Missouri do not limit the states' ability to compile information on probable child abusers for states' own internal purposes. Abuse investigators say that information is critical as they attempt to establish patterns of abuse over time.

But some child-welfare reformers wish that the court rulings would go further.

Richard Wexler, of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said the abuse registries often allow state workers to prop up child abuse investigations based on rumor and innuendo. In the process, he said, children are sometimes needlessly placed in foster care, with investigators jumping to conclusions.

"In child welfare, where there's smoke, very often there's just smoke," he said.

Reporter Matthew Franck
Phone: 636-500-4106

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