Coe and her daughter said their entire interaction with the justice system stemmed from a single mistaken incident. The daughter says she told police at the time that she was not abused.
"My mother never abused me, and this particular incident was never child abuse. It was an accident," said the daughter, a graduate student. "I think it's absolutely clear that we don't belong on this list. The fact that someone could look in there and see that I was an abused child is just totally preposterous."
The Los Angeles Police Department investigated the case, but charges were never filed and county social workers never removed the teenager from her mother's home, a law enforcement source said.
Representatives of the city attorney's office continue to insist that a police officer acted appropriately in investigating the case and reporting Coe to the Child Abuse Central Index.
"There is no doubt that the facts known to the detective who investigated this incident put it squarely within the reporting requirements of state law," said Annette Keller, an assistant city attorney who has defended the city. Keller said LAPD officers had abided by state law and regulations--which require listing any incident in which they find "some credible evidence" of child abuse.
But the level of proof required to list someone on the CACI computer is one of the central issues of the lawsuit and of ongoing debate in the Legislature. CACI includes far more than the names of convicted child abusers.
It records individuals, like Coe, against whom a police officer "substantiated" a finding of child abuse or neglect. To make such a finding, state law requires that an investigator find only "some credible evidence" of mistreatment. And the state allows investigators to enter into CACI even "unsubstantiated" cases--those in which insufficient evidence exists to determine whether a child has been victimized.
Only cases determined to be entirely "unfounded"--including accidental injuries, false reports or inherently improbable accusations--are not to be compiled on the computer.
Supporters of CACI say the liberal reporting requirements allow the public to make educated decisions that help keep children out of dangerous settings. The state law that created CACI never intended it to be a final and definitive arbiter of character.
Instead, the law requires adoption agencies, state Department of Social Services licensing officials and others who use the information to conduct additional investigation--including contacting the police or others who initiated the child abuse complaint.
Through this double-checking, CACI users are supposed to confirm whether a computer "match" is indeed the same person and then learn the underlying facts of the case. Only then are they supposed to use the information, say, to deny employment or adoption opportunities.
Coe's attorney, Esther G. Boynton, said a child abuse computer can serve a valid public purpose. But she said its use has been marred by haphazard regulations, poor record keeping and questionable follow-up by the system's users.
"In this system, a single police officer or social worker is given complete control over whether a person may be indelibly branded with a child abuse record," Boynton said.
Through her lawsuit, Coe seeks to create immediate notification and an appeal process for listees, who now are not told that they have been entered in the system.
In an initial court defeat, Judge McCoy ruled Nov. 12 that Coe had not proven that the index led to a tangible loss such as employment or family integrity. He found that the required follow-up investigations by the agencies using the system ensure that adoptions, child placements and employment are not denied improperly.
McCoy added: "The fact that a given Index disclosure . . . might somehow prove embarrassing to an individual must, in these circumstances, give way to the government's overriding legitimate interests in protecting children and apprehending child abusers."
But the lawsuit has prompted the Justice Department to thoroughly examine the system. The department issued a plan for several changes, and this year it:
* Began releasing computer information only after confirming that original abuse records still exist and investigators said the allegation still fit in the unsubstantiated or substantiated categories.
* Started informing applicants for adoptions, child care licenses or employment if their names had triggered a match in the child abuse computer. It still does not notify individuals when they are listed.
* Designed a formal procedure to keep a record of all agencies given access to an individual's computer files.
* Stopped releasing, to state licensing officials, the names of child abuse victims who apply to work with children.