The system that protects children from abuse is ignoring the rights of those who may be wrongly accused, say some legislators who heard a House briefing yesterday.
Most of the delegates on the committee had read a ruling by a federal judge last month in the case of David and Marsha Hodge, a Carroll County couple accused of abusing their infant son and then exonerated. The investigation began after doctors misdiagnosed the boy's bone infection as a fracture.
The Hodges, residents of Taylorsville, sued in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. They said the state violated their rights by denying them access to their records.
The summary judgment in their favor by Senior Judge Herbert F. Murray says that the law requires that officials must give anyone on the state data base for child abuse cases access to the records and a hearing.
"That is at odds with what we've been told [by the Department of Human Resources]," said Del. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., R-Baltimore County.
Mr. Ehrlich was among committee members who pressed the state officials about trampling the rights of the accused.
It was a role that Del. Donald Elliott, R-Carroll, had hoped to take, although he is not on the committee. He said he was first told he could speak, but then was told he could not.
Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Elliott co-sponsored a bill that passed early this year that allows a category of "ruled out" for cases that are definitely not child abuse and allows them to be expunged after 120 days.
Such a category, had it existed, would have applied to the Hodges. But in 1989, when the couple was investigated, the charges against them had to be listed under "unsubstantiated," and were expunged only if no other complaints surfaced within five years.
Mr. Ehrlich said that he agrees with officials who testified yesterday that the state must put the welfare of children before the rights of the accused.
But Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Elliott said that the department has gone too far. Mr. Elliott said that he believes the right legislation exists but that the department is interpreting it badly.
Mr. Ehrlich said that he expects new legislation in the next session.
Mr. Hodge, who attended the hearing, said afterward, "I do think this [child abuse] is a serious problem, and I do think you should keep a central registry. But let people see their records."
Mr. Hodge said that, had he been allowed to see his records as he had asked, he could have alerted officials to an error that linked him and his wife to sexual abuse instead of physical abuse. The error was not changed until a few days after the Hodges filed suit in federal court this summer. Until then, they had gone for two years not realizing they were listed as possible sexual abusers.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said yesterday that the state will appeal Judge Murray's ruling. Mr. Curran disagrees with the finding that the statewide data base meets the definition of a "central registry" under which the Hodges would have the right to access to their file and the right to appeal any mistakes.