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Lawmakers aim to `tame' child-abuse database

If you have ever been accused of child abuse, your name probably appears on a state data-base - whether the case was substantiated or not - and it won't ever come off.

A group of lawmakers, saying it may be illegal, voted Tuesday to recommend the state let the law that allows the database lapse. The Administrative Rules Review Committee told the Department of Human Services to prepare new legislation for the 1998 session."I think we're using (the database) totally contrary to law right now," said Rep. Byron L. Harward, R-Provo.

Those on the other side of the table don't disagree. Scott Clark, chairman of the Board of Child and Family Services, said a class action lawsuit by people placed on the database without due process is a "potential time bomb."

Anyone who has been investigated for child abuse ends up on the database, which the division had to create as part of the settlement agreement of a federal child-neglect lawsuit.

Both sides agree the database is invaluable for giving caseworkers insight into possible foster-care placements and other decisions. But they suggest there should be a different data-base when the state makes decisions on granting licenses.

Anyone applying to the state to be a foster parent, child-care provider or to adopt a child is run through the database, Clark said. If his or her name is found, a four-member committee meets and tries to determine whether the case is substantiated and renders a decision.

Clark, along with lawmakers, believes eliminating the database is not the answer.

"It was instigated for a totally appropriate reason: to protect children," Clark said.

Until recently, people didn't know they were on the database or the focus of the committee's meeting until they received a letter denying them a license. If they were approved, there was no mention of the data-base or the investigation.

Clark said the "trial in absentia" is "Kafka-esque" and the whole system is flawed.

Gayle Weber, Elk Ridge, and her husband had been foster parents for about four years when they unexpectedly received a letter from the state in 1995 stating their foster care licenses had been terminated. The couple had to make a request, under the Government Records Management Act, to find out the database and subsequent committee decision had led to the revocation.

One of the couple's former foster children had told officials that Weber forced her to shovel snow barefoot and wear a nightgown to church. The mother of 14 denies the allegations. She said it's unjust to allow such unsubstantiated cases to result in permanent placement on a state database.

"I want children protected," Weber said. `But this drives away good people. I will never apply to be a foster parent again."

This is not a new problem. Last year, the same legislative committee asked the Legislature to change the way the database works.

An interdisciplinary committee of child advocates recommended separating the lists into one for licensing purposes and one for case-workers.

That legislation never materialized.

In June, the division began notifying people whose names were being added to the list. However, everyone placed on the list before June has not been notified. There is also no expungement or termination date, so the list - without modification - will grow exponentially.

On Friday, state officials will meet with representatives from the Utah Attorney General's office, child-protection advocates, the Civil Rights Commission and other groups to come up with a system that protects children while also protecting adults' due-process rights.

"We have to tame the database," Clark said.