Abuse suspects win right to tell their side Court rules the accused are entitled to hearings before being put on registry

August 01, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Those accused of child abuse -- but never criminally charged -- yesterday won the right to tell their side to an administrative law judge and appeal to Circuit Court before their names are placed on a secret state registry of child abusers.

The Court of Appeals ruled that those suspected of child abuse are entitled to the hearings because of the consequences of being listed on the Maryland Child Abuse Registry.

The state's highest court said the Department of Human Resources has been misinterpreting the 1993 law that established the registry by prohibiting meaningful hearings before placing someone on the list for seven years.

"The amendments to Maryland's child abuse laws evidence a deep concern on the part of the legislature to give individuals alleged to have committed child abuse or neglect an opportunity to clear their name," Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy wrote for a unanimous court.

Prince George's County case

The ruling stems from a Prince George's County case in which a man accused of sexually abusing his niece in 1993 was placed on the registry, maintained by the Office of Child Protective Services, even though he never was criminally charged.

The man, identified only as "C.S." in court documents, was prohibited from testifying and from cross-examining his accusers in the hearing he requested before an administrative law judge.

Christyne L. Neff, a lawyer for the Federation of Maryland Teachers and Public Employees, who filed a brief supporting "C.S.," said the rules had limited the administrative hearings to 30-minute sessions, with 15 minutes of oral arguments from lawyers.

Yesterday's decision guarantees a hearing in which those accused will be able to subpoena witnesses, testify and cross-examine their accusers, she said.

"It's quite an astounding change from the process as it is now followed. It will be a very different world in terms of the rights guaranteed," she said.

Closely watched

The case was closely watched by advocates for teachers and civil rights groups.

Under the law, a social worker investigates a complaint and determines if the abuse is "indicated," "unsubstantiated" or "ruled out," according to court papers.

If the abuse is "indicated or unsubstantiated," the name of the suspect is placed in the registry for seven years, said Assistant Attorney General Sandra Barnes. There are 14,715 names in the registry, she said.

New hearings

Barnes said the decision will mean new administrative hearings for 60 people who appealed to Circuit Court. But she said those in the registry who have not filed Circuit Court petitions will be unaffected.

Neff said the list is available to police, social workers, licensed therapists and school officials. She said teachers worry that being listed could lead to their dismissal or prevent them from being offered higher-paying jobs in other school systems.

She said one Baltimore teacher appealed to the Circuit Court after she was cited for grabbing the backpack of a student running down a hallway.

A teacher at the Maryland School for the Deaf appealed after she was cited for bumping into a student in a shop class, she said.

Pub Date: 8/01/96

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