State Supreme Court hears arguments over child abuse list

Thursday, October 14, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Supreme Court weighed the constitutionality of the state's list of suspected child abusers Wednesday, but some judges questioned why they were even considering the case.

A lower court judge declared the list unconstitutional in January, ruling it does not adequately protect the rights of people placed on it. The Department of Social Services continued to keep the list while it appealed to the state's highest court, and the law creating it has since been changed by lawmakers to fix the problem cited by the lower court judge.

The suspected child-abusers list was challenged by workers at Heartland Christian Academy, a nondenominational Christian school near Newark in northeast Missouri. Those workers' names were removed from the list following the lower court ruling.

In 2001, academy founder Charles Sharpe and three employees were placed on a registry of suspected child abusers by the Division of Family Services for paddling two children at the school. Students also accused the workers of administering swats with a baseball bat, severe weight loss from lack of food and strenuous exercise followed by paddling.

Neither Sharpe nor any of the employees were convicted of child abuse. But requests to remove their names from the child abuse registry were rejected during an administrative procedure.

Names in the registry are not public, but the state must disclose them to prospective child-care employers. Some of the four Heartland workers said they had trouble finding jobs because their names were on the list.

Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan overturned the law and threw out all of the state's findings against the four workers. The state did not appeal the judge's dismissal of the abuse claims against the Heartland employees but contended the law should be reinstated.

At the time of trial, the state used a "probable cause" standard of evidence to place someone on the list. Callahan said the state must use a higher "preponderance of evidence" standard. That "proponderance" standard took effect Aug. 28 as part of a revision of the state's child abuse and neglect system.

Some Supreme Court judges questioned Wednesday what the Heartland employees or the state wanted from the court, since the law has been changed to meet Callahan's requirements.

Timothy Belz, an attorney for the workers, said he still has concerns for his clients and others working with children. In particular, he said it takes too long from when a person's name goes on the child abuse registry to a final hearing, when a name can be removed if the individual prevails. For his clients, the administrative procedures took months, and from the initial finding to Callahan's ruling was more than two years. He said a name should not be listed until appeals have been exhausted.

Along those lines, Supreme Court Judge Richard Teitelman asked, "Once your clients are listed, can you put the genie back in the bottle?"

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