Ruling will remove few names from Missouri's child abuse registry

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- More than a month after the Missouri Supreme Court declared the state's method of registering known and suspected child abusers as unconstitutional, only a few names are being removed from the list.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Tuesday that only about one in a thousand people initially will be taken off Missouri's child abuse registry under an interpretation of the ruling by the state Department of Social Services. That small number is prompting speculation of more litigation.

At issue is how much evidence the state needs to list someone as likely to have committed abuse or neglect on Missouri's so-called Central Registry, a largely confidential list used mainly by child abuse investigators.

Employers also rely on the list to screen job applicants who may work with kids. The state Supreme Court noted that livelihoods could be harmed if people were unfairly listed.

In it's March ruling, the court said Missouri was unconstitutionally depriving people of their due-process rights by allowing them to be included on the blacklist based solely on the determination of a state child-abuse-and-neglect investigator or supervisor.

The ruling largely upholds a November 2005 decision by a Cole County judge striking down the registry's procedures.

Timothy Belz, the lawyer who successfully argued the case, said he believed that all those who were registered based on probable cause now should have grounds to fight being included on the list.

But under the department's interpretation, the ruling is largely limited to people who have appeals pending before the state. Currently, fewer than 100 of the nearly 100,000 people on the registry fit that criteria.

Harry Williams, a lawyer for the Department of Social Services, said all individuals with an active appeal would be removed from the list, though their names would be added back if the state could prove that it had a preponderance of evidence of abuse or neglect.

That interpretation could soon be challenged. In two pending cases in Cole County, lawyers argue that the Supreme Court ruling means their clients should be removed from the list for good, without the need for additional hearings.

An even larger legal battle could erupt over the scores of people added to the registry based on probable cause, but who never disputed being placed on the list.

Williams said those who had forgone the appeals process had in effect agreed to the findings against them. But Belz said even if a person failed to appeal, they can now argue that the legal standard used to place them on the registry is invalid.

Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

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