Maryland's Star Chamber Child-abuse registry: State court ends a dangerous practice by social service agency.

August 03, 1996

A TEACHER sees a student running down the hall and grabs the youth's backpack. Another teacher bumps into a student in shop class. Child abuse? Of course not. But to social service officials, these episodes were sufficient to place the teachers on a child-abuser registry -- even though they were never found to have done anything wrong.

The story gets worse. The teachers were barred from cross-examining the accusers. They couldn't testify themselves. They couldn't subpoena witnesses. All they got were 30-minute sessions before an administrative judge. No appeals to trial courts.

Once their names entered the registry, they couldn't be expunged. Yet many people could gain access to this data, effectively stigmatizing the teachers forever as child abusers.

It is Maryland's version of a Star Chamber. But this week, the Maryland Court of Appeals unanimously put an end to this trampling of civil liberties in future cases. Lamentably, though, the court left 14,500 persons still on the blacklist.

From now on, anyone accused of child abuse can get a full administrative hearing and can appeal to the courts. That is a common-sense ruling, one the state agency should have embraced years ago. Instead, it rushed to compile an extensive list of of "indicated" and "unsubstantiated" child abusers. Then the fun begins. Employers can find out if a potential employee is listed. So can school officials, social workers, police officials and therapists.

Confidentiality is easily breached. Those whose cases had been found "unsubstantiated" by a social worker are still listed, an easy target for blacklisting by employers or persecution by overzealous law-enforcement officials.

It is a Kafkaesque situation in which 14,500 people, the vast majority of whom have never been found guilty, are fingered as evil people and denied a chance to fully defend themselves. This dangerous practice must be halted.

Maryland's highest court didn't go far enough in its ruling. It should have followed the lead of a Virginia appeals court, which ordered that state's social service agency to purge from a similar registry all data of people suspected but never convicted of child abuse.

As things stand, those already listed in Maryland's registry cannot appeal. Misuse or abuse of their names, which could ruin their lives, remains a frightening possibility.

Child welfare advocates want to protect youngsters from cruel, uncaring adults. They are well-intentioned. But when they ignore a citizen's fundamental rights, they go too far.

Pub Date: 8/03/96

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