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Parents cleared of false allegations remain on state's child abuser list

California's child abuse reporting act is unconstitutional because the wrongly accused have no recourse to get off the list. More than a year after that ruling, the state has yet to fix the problem.

February 23, 2010|By David G. Savage

Reporting from Washington — Craig and Wendy Humphries of Valencia have been "living every parent's nightmare," as a judge put it, since Craig's rebellious teenager falsely accused them of abuse nine years ago. They were arrested by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and had their other young children taken away from them.

It continues today. Even though the state courts agreed that the girl's original complaint was "not true" and that the couple were "factually innocent," the Humphrieses are still listed as child abusers on the state's Child Abuse Central Index.

A federal appeals court ruled that Los Angeles County should pay damages to the couple, but the U.S. Supreme Court intervened Monday and said it would hear the county's claim that it is the state that is at fault.

California's Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act requires various state and local officers, including the police, to submit reports of child abuse even if they are "inconclusive." The list includes 800,000 names. When the Humphrieses first tried to be removed from the index, they were told to contact the deputy who filed the original report. But he said the complaint was "substantiated" at the time he filed it, and therefore, could not remove their names. Wendy Humphries, a special education teacher, worried that being on the list could prevent her state credentials from being renewed.

"We're still trying to get them out of the index, but it hasn't happened yet," said Esther Boynton, a Beverly Hills lawyer who has filed suits to challenge the law.

The Humphrieses had sued in federal court, alleging that their constitutional rights were violated. They won in 2008 before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the system is unconstitutional because it does not give innocent people a procedure to have their names removed.

More than a year later, state officials say they are still pondering the matter. "We're still in the process of determining what is needed to comply with the 9th Circuit's decision," said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the California Department of Justice.

"There is no effective way for the Humphries to challenge this listing, and no way for them to be removed from the listing," the appeals court said. Because L.A. County played a role in their ordeal, the appeals court said it too could be forced to pay damages.

Timothy Coates, an L.A. lawyer who represented the county in its appeal, argued that the county did not devise the state index and is not free to change it.

"We agree that once people get on the list, it is very difficult to get off it. The question is: Who is responsible for that? We don't have the ability to change the law," he said. It was that issue that the court agreed to hear Monday.

In the meantime, the state remains obligated under the 9th Circuit ruling to devise a procedure to allow innocent people to have their names removed.

david.savage@latimes.com

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