Elliott challenges records policy in abuse cases Rights issue led to federal lawsuits

October 27, 1992|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

A legislative briefing tomorrow on how child abuse cases are investigated could go beyond the routine if a Carroll delegate presses issues that have led to two federal lawsuits this year.

The Department of Human Resources asked to give the presentation before the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis to educate legislators on the issue before the next General Assembly session begins in January, said Clarence Brown, a department spokesman.

The briefing is scheduled as early as 1 p.m., but may be later, in the Lowe Office Building.

Del. Donald B. Elliott, a 4B District Republican, is not on the committee, but he will be allowed to question the department specifically about the rights of those investigated to have access to their records and a hearing if their names are linked to abuse in the state's data bank.

"I just feel it's going to be a dog and pony show for the [Department of Human Resources]," Mr. Elliott said. "All the good things they do. What I want to get at is the Automated Master File."

The master file is a computer database that lists the names of anyone who has ever received services from the department.

Although the state maintains it is not a "central registry" of abuse cases, Mr. Elliott and other critics who maintain that it is had a recent victory in U. S. District Court in Baltimore.

In the case of David and Marsha Hodge of Taylorsville last month, Senior Judge Herbert F. Murray ruled that the master file is a central registry. That means the law requires those listed in it to receive notice of being listed, a chance for a hearing and other protections.

Mr. Elliott said legislation exists to provide the protections he seeks for state residents, but the laws should be clarified to prevent the department from misinterpreting them.

He decried the department's handling of the Hodge case, in which the state's master file incorrectly linked the Hodges to sexual abuse of their son on a state database for two years. The couple knew they were in the state registry, but didn't know they were erroneously listed as sexual abusers.

The family was drawn into the human resources system in January 1989, when a doctor misdiagnosed their son's swollen arm as a fracture.

An investigation by the Carroll County Department of Social Services ruled out physical abuse. Another doctor later determined that the swelling was from a bone infection.

After the correct diagnosis, the Hodges tried to get the state to expunge their file, or at least show them what was in it.

Their attempts butted up against a state law that required all child abuse cases to be kept on file for five years to show possible patterns of abuse and injury.

After the Hodges enlisted Mr. Elliott's help, he sponsored legislation -- enacted this year -- that allows a category for ruling out abuse and expunging the file. However, the law was not retroactive.

Mr. Elliott maintains that the law he sponsored is now ineffective because the department has so narrowed its application. "As far as I'm concerned, that bill [law] has no effect at all . . . The department drafted internal regulations that neutralized that legislation."

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