Family Fights To Clear Name In Dhr Files

February 02, 1992|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff writer

One Westminster man has ended a two-year fight to clear his name, but a Taylorsville couple has just begun a similar battle in federal court.

They say their rights have been trampled by a social servicesbureaucracy that forces them to go to court to get fair treatment.

In Elliot Burgher's case, the Maryland Department of Human Resources will cut its losses and obey a judicial order to expunge all records of an investigation into whether Burgher abused his elderly mother, said Helen Szablya, the agency's public information director.

The order came from Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck in late December. Officials at the DHR decided this month not to appeal, Szablya said.

Even though an investigation in 1989 ruled out abuse, and Elizabeth Burgher died in 1990, state policy is to keep the records in case a pattern of reported abuse shows up later, Szablya said.

As it stands, the impact of the court order goes no further than CarrollCounty, but if it were appealed and lost, it could set a statewide precedent allowing other requests, Szablya said. That would take time and money, she said.

But the issue will also air at a federal level. David and Marsha Hodge of Taylorsville filed suit in January in U.S. District Court to have the state expunge any existing records of aJanuary 1989 investigation in which a social worker ruled that theirinfant son was not abused.

The Hodges also are asking for $1.5 million in punitive damages. Named in the suit are the Carroll County Department of Social Services, Director M. Alexander Jones, Assistant Director Alan L. Katz and Carolyn W. Colvin, secretary of the state DHR, which oversees DSS. Hodge said he wants to prove the DHR rules violate individual rights and due process.

"Does any government agency have the right to maintain a person's name as a suspected child abuser, even when they've been ruled out as a suspect?" Hodge said.

He said he and his wife have been unable to see all the information in their file and to get the state to correct inaccuracies. The suit says a misdiagnosis of his son's swollen arm led pediatrician Michael Rosner and Carroll County General Hospital to report possible abuse. The swelling was a bone infection later corrected by surgery at UnionMemorial Hospital.

Even before the correct diagnosis, a social worker ruled out abuse, but the file remains in DHR archives. Hodge fears a stigma.

"If anything happens to my son -- if he falls down orfalls off his bike -- do you think I'm going to be looked at the same way as the person across the street?" he said.

"I'm not trying to get my name in the paper, but I realized if you're in for a penny, you're in for a dollar," Hodge said. "I just found myself in a position with a case that would be a good test case."

A technicality is all that stands in the way of the Hodge records' destruction: Before 1991, all cases were termed either substantiated or unsubstantiated. The "ruled out" category was not created until January 1991, after Hodge lobbied the General Assembly. The 1991 change also requires that records of ruled-out cases be destroyed after 120 days.

Hodge saidhis files do say "ruled out," so he wants them destroyed. Szablya said there is no retroactive clause in the new law, and that going backand reviewing all unsubstantiated cases to see whether they should have been ruled out would be too costly.

Of the 26,828 cases of reported child abuse in 1991, two-thirds were unsubstantiated, she said.She had no statistics on how many were ruled out, she said.

Hodgeand Burgher helped form Citizens for Family Preservation Inc., a support group of about 20 members from around the state.

"There are many other lawsuits in the planning stages," Hodge said.

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