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Abuser list tags innocents, too

Accusations are all it takes to land people on the state index, but only long legal battles can clear their names.

December 07, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Williams is a Times staff writer.

Accused of child abuse by a vindictive ex-girlfriend 22 years ago, Bakersfield stockbroker Scott Whyte ceased contact with their son for years, fearing that another allegation would land him in prison, before a court cleared him.

Craig and Wendy Humphries went to jail after a rebellious teenage daughter fled to Utah and told police there that her father and stepmother had abused her. While the Valencia couple were locked up in Los Angeles County on charges eventually ruled groundless, their two younger children were placed in foster care.

Esther Boynton, a Beverly Hills lawyer who helped Whyte and the Humphrieses fight to clear their names, had her own hellish experience getting off the state's Child Abuse Central Index, a database containing 819,000 names from which even a judgment of innocence isn't enough to secure removal.

Unlike the better-known database created by Megan's Law, which registers and tracks 63,000 named sex offenders, the child abuse index is neither actively managed by the state nor periodically purged of erroneous or unsubstantiated entries -- despite efforts by the wrongly included to escape its shameful stain.

The California Department of Justice has been ordered in at least three court decisions in recent years to create a standard way to remove from the index the names of those exonerated by courts or social service investigations.

But in response to the latest judgment, a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last month that the Humphrieses' privacy rights had been violated, the Office of the Attorney General plans another appeal in defense of the state's handling of the database.

Whyte, 59, looks back on a life irreparably damaged by the abuser label and the threat of punishment for a crime he didn't commit.

When the mother of his then-4-year-old son made the false allegations against him in 1986 and Kern County authorities put his name in the abuser index, Whyte said, his initial anger "quickly gave way to complete terror."

The mother's report was made during a veritable witch hunt that grew out of child abuse allegations against day-care workers in the county throughout the 1980s.

"The atmosphere was such that if you were accused, you might as well turn yourself in to prison and look to spend the rest of your life there," Whyte recalled.

For months after learning of the report, Whyte so feared his arrest was imminent that he left a blank check and the deed to his house with a relative to post bond for him.

"I just couldn't believe that this could happen to a person in this country, that [authorities] would destroy families with nothing but a phone call," said the father who protected his liberty at the cost of any relationship with his son. "There are not any words strong enough to describe that situation, the shame, the travesty. Somebody ought to be shot."

The Humphrieses, still listed as abusers, "are living every parent's nightmare," the appeals court said. It ruled the state in violation of the 14th Amendment because people in the index aren't given a chance to challenge the allegations against them.

The couple's ordeal began in March 2001, when Craig Humphries' 15-year-old daughter from a previous marriage took their car without permission and drove to Utah, where her mother and stepfather lived. She told them she had been abused since being sent to California nine months earlier, and a Utah emergency room doctor who examined the teen reported to Los Angeles County authorities that she had "non-accidental trauma with extremity contusions."

On the basis of that one phone call, the Humphrieses were arrested, jailed and charged with felony torture. The arresting sheriff's deputy filed a "substantiated" child abuse report that got them entered in the index. Their two younger children were placed in protective custody.

"My clients didn't have any idea where their kids were," said Boynton, who, because the case is still in litigation, has advised the couple against discussing their ordeal with The Times.

The Humphrieses got their children back about 10 days later, and California medical records proved that the daughter's bruises were the result of surgical removal of melanoma.

"The Humphries have taken advantage of every procedure available to them, including the California courts," Judge Jay S. Bybee wrote in the 9th Circuit Court opinion. "They went to the dependency court, which found that the allegations were 'not true' and returned their children to them. They went to the prosecutor, who dropped all the charges against them. They went to the criminal court, which declared them 'factually innocent' and sealed their arrest records. None of this had any effect on their CACI listing."

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