About 100,000 people named on a state computerized roster as suspected child abusers over the past seven years will get to challenge their inclusion on the listing in hearings beginning next month, state officials said yesterday.
Stephen K. Berry, manager of the Maryland Department of Human Resources' child protective services program, said public notices will be printed in Maryland newspapers beginning Monday with a toll-free number to call for information on obtaining a hearing.
Sandra I. Barnes, an assistant attorney general assigned to DHR, stressed that access to the agency's database on abuse and neglect cases is restricted to certain people in the state's Social Services Administration.
Berry said he could not estimate how many of the approximately 100,000 people suspected of child abuse or neglect will try to have their names removed from the department's database by requesting a hearing before an administrative law judge.
"The first few days after the phone number is set up, we should get an idea," Berry said.
One defense attorney involved in the appellate case that resulted in the hearings predicted the response will produce a logjam.
The notice gives people until June 30 to request a hearing, Berry said.
Linda D. Ellard, executive director of DHR's Social Services Administration, said a Court of Appeals ruling April 9 prompted the public notice, while also causing DHR to change its procedures for dealing with child abuse and neglect cases.
The court ruled that "adults alleged to have committed an act of child abuse or neglect were entitled to a contested hearing where they could present witnesses" and testify themselves, before their names can be entered in the computer system, Ellard said.
"It's not just an issue in Maryland," Ellard said. "There are a lot of states struggling to maintain the rights of the accused, as well as those of children."
After investigating a report of child abuse or neglect, DHR puts it into one of three categories -- "ruled out," "unsubstantiated" or "indicated." DHR was entering the "unsubstantiated" and "indicated" categories into the computer list, with the names of people in the investigation.
Berry said "indicated" means the evidence suggests the abuse or neglect occurred, while "unsubstantiated" means there was not enough evidence to support a finding of "indicated" or "ruled out." DHR notifies those on the list by mail how they have been categorized.
DHR investigated 30,330 child abuse and neglect complaints statewide in fiscal 1997, which ended June 30, DHR spokesman Harry Bosk said. Of that number, 7,752 were recorded as "indicated" and 8,341 were listed as "unsubstantiated."
Attorney David V. Diggs, who represented a client in one of three cases that were consolidated in the Court of Appeals, said even an unsubstantiated abuse claim can have a devastating impact on a person who is on DHR's computerized list.
"I know of teachers who have lost their jobs based solely on the allegation, without having an opportunity to be heard, and of day care license holders who have lost their licenses," Diggs said. "We certainly recognize that child abuse is a serious societal problem, but you just can't abridge the accused's rights to due process."
Attorney Joseph F. Devlin, who represented another client in the Court of Appeals case, said the previous system did not provide enough safeguards to protect innocent people from being placed on the DHR list.
Pub Date: 5/28/98