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San Diego County to Scrutinize State Child Abuse Index for Errors

Law: Attorney general hopes other counties will follow suit in response to concerns about possible false allegations. Legislative effort to overhaul the list faltered.

September 08, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — To ensure that people are not being damaged by false or outdated allegations of child abuse, the county health department here has become the first in California to review local names placed on a statewide list of potential molesters.

Under a 1982 law, the state has collected names of 810,000 people on its Child Abuse Central Index, which is available for inspection by child-welfare officials and agencies that screen people seeking to adopt a child, become a foster parent or obtain a day-care license.

But there has been concern that some names have remained on the list even though the allegations were shown to be meritless.

State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, for example, has suggested that some people may have been unfairly denied jobs or the chance to adopt a child because unfounded allegations put them on the list.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 10, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Child abuse--A story Friday about a statewide child abuse complaint database incorrectly described the circumstances of a child abuse complaint, later found to be groundless, against Mark Arner of San Diego while he was engaged in a custody dispute with his ex-wife. Arner has said he does not know who filed the complaint, and county officials have declined to name the complainant.

At Lockyer's request, Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa) sponsored a bill this year that called for a task force to review the database and suggest changes. But Granlund withdrew the bill after critics complained that the panel was biased against those accused of molestation, regardless of evidence.

But now San Diego County has agreed to check the list against its own child-abuse allegation files. State law says names should not appear if the allegation was unfounded or if the evidence was inconclusive and the allegation is more than 10 years old.

Lockyer's staff is monitoring the county's review, with hopes other counties might follow its lead. About 60,000 allegations are filed annually by counties with the Department of Justice.

Debra Zanders-Willis, a spokesman for the county Department of Health and Human Services, said the county does not forward a name to the database if social workers determine the allegation is unfounded. By checking the list, she said, the county will be able to determine if there have been any slip-ups in this policy.

"We believe the number will be very, very small, but we want to make sure," she said.

By law, the name remains permanently if the allegation was substantiated by proof and remains for 10 years if the evidence was inconclusive.

Zanders-Willis said about 20% of allegations each year fall into the unfounded category when social workers can find no evidence to suggest abuse.

Two years ago, a change in state law required counties to begin notifying persons whose names are placed on the list and allowing them to appeal the finding of the social workers. Names listed before 1998 were not covered by the notification requirement.

Zanders-Willis said about 200 appeals have been heard in San Diego, but only a half-dozen resulted in the decision of the social workers being overturned and the name being removed from the state list.

The issue of the damaging impact of being listed on a child abuse database has been highlighted in San Diego by the case of Mark Arner, 42, a local journalist who was accused of child abuse by his ex-wife during a divorce proceeding.

Although officials concluded the allegation was unfounded, Arner spent two frustrating years attempting to get his name removed from the list and was successful only after filing a $1.5-million damage suit against the county.

He became an advocate for closer scrutiny of such allegations and for careful monitoring of the database and was a leader of the opposition to the Granlund bill.

Arner said he feels that the county's review "is a good first step" but that more needs to be done to allow people who are the target of child-abuse allegations to clear their names and avoid being listed.

"Unless they have a meaningful process where people can challenge the record . . . then you're not much further along," Arner said. "When an allegation is made against you, you fall into a world where you're fighting shadows. It's horrible."

Whether the movement to review the names on the database will be taken up by other counties is unclear.

"We'll see how it works with San Diego County," said Lockyer spokesman Nathan Barankin, "and then we'll see where we go from there. Hopefully it will expand across the state."

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