ANNAPOLIS — Two Westminster residents who say they have been wrongly suspected of child abuse argued yesterday for changes in a state Department of Human Resources policy that requires their names to be kept on file for five years, even after they have been cleared.
David R. Hodge and Elliott Burgher testified for the second consecutive year on a billthat would require local social services departments to expunge reports of suspected abuse or neglect within 120 days after the date of the referral if the report is "ruled out" and no further reports are received during that period.
DHR classifies every report of child abuse as either "indicated" or "unsubstantiated." A computer data base compiled by local agencieslists the names of those who have been investigated for child abuse or neglect, whether the cases were confirmed or not. Social workers and law enforcement officials have access to the information.
The bill, introduced by Delegate Donald B. Elliott, R-Carroll, Howard, would add the "ruled out" classification, which would allow deletion of cases in which "clear and convincing evidence" shows that abuse or neglect did not occur.
Hodge, a research scientist at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, says he still is haunted by a doctor's call two years ago to the Carroll County Department of Social Services, reporting a suspicion that he and his wife, Marsha Ann, might haveabused their son, Joseph.
Joseph, born prematurely in October 1988, was diagnosed at Carroll County General Hospital in January 1989 as having a fractured bone in his arm, prompting the call to DSS, saidHodge. Later, a private physician diagnosed Joseph as having a bone tissue infection, the result of previous medical treatment.
Although the Hodges were notified by social service workers that they had been cleared of allegations, their names remain in the system. DHR prefers to maintain information on the investigations for five years in case subsequent suspicions of abuse are reported involving the same people.
"The stigma of being listed in a data base with confirmed abusers and pedophiles is a clear violation of our liberty interests,"Hodge told the House Judiciary Committee.
An anonymous caller filed a report several years ago suspecting Burgher of abusing his mother. The report never was confirmed and the investigation halted, but Burgher remains on the list.
DHR's director of child welfare supported the bill with an amendment that would allow the agency to retain a "closing document" for ruled-out cases to protect itself from lawsuits. The document would state that a supervisor reviewed the investigation performed and that statutes for investigations were followed. However, no case-specific information would be retained and the case record would be expunged.
The Westminster residents also supported a bill sponsored by Elliott that would require social services agencies to maintain a central registry of cases involving reports of suspected child abuse and neglect. Such a registry would allow those suspected and investigated for abuse to appeal and receive a hearing to try to clear their names.
DHR objected to that bill, largely because of the estimated $1.1 million price tag that would go along with itfor fiscal 1992.
Burgher said his "reputation and good name" havebeen ruined by the investigation and continued record.
"The Department of Social Services has more power than the police," he said. "When the police take action you have recourse, you can go to court. DSS keeps you within the system."
"It is our contention that the fiscal and programmatic disadvantages of resurrecting this system far outweighs any benefits that may be accrued," said Linda Heisner of DHR.