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Letters on child abuse stir hostility

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A teenager wanted to live with her boyfriend and her mother refused. The fighting resulted in a runaway girl who had a conversation with child-welfare officials.

There was an investigation, questions about abuse and neglect, and a daughter in foster care.Now, three years later, the Utah County woman fears receiving a letter from the state saying she is a potential threat to children. Her daughter, now grown and married, has repeatedly said there was no abuse.

On July 1, the state mailed letters to 9,900 Utahns who have been reported as potential child abusers over the past decade. Mandated by the lawmakers this spring, the Division of Child and Family Services is overhauling a database of more than 200,000 child-abuse records gathered since the late 1970s.

There has been a lot of anger from recipients of the letters, especially from people who had no idea they were considered potential child abusers, said Kathy Cooney, policy analyst for DCFS. That's the reason the Legislature mandated the overhaul: to give people due process and a chance to appeal the findings, she said.

One problem since the letters began going out in mid-June is the division's inability to find some people. Others are refusing to accept the certified letters.

So far, about one-third of the letters have been returned unopened to the division.

Those 3,300 people will be placed on the database automatically. If they contact the division before Dec. 1, they can still request a hearing. What happens to them after 1999 though must be decided by the Legislature next year, Cooney said.

Some 300 people - about 50 per day - have requested a hearing to appeal the allegations to the division. Tracking the letters, the requests and the undeliverables has been a labor-intensive job for DCFS, Cooney said.

But some people, including the Utah County mother who asked not to be identified, say the state should have tried harder. She called the approach "second-grade reasoning" in trying to protect children by vilifying adults.

Those who don't appeal or whose cases remain substantiated will be placed on two future databases: one for child-welfare decisions; another for licensing child-care providers, adoptive and foster parents and others who work with children.

Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas, has also criticized officials for language in the letter he finds accusatory. Cooney said she has not heard similar complaints.

"I have not had a single individual that has called to express concern about how the letter was written. They were simply angry about the content," she said. "We really tried to make the letter clear and easy to read. We didn't want to fill it up with legalese."

Still, there is a lot of resentment.

"It is really unfortunate. There is a lot of anger. There is a lot of confusion," Cooney said. "We've advised people to go ahead and request a hearing and get a copy of (the) record. We'll help them with the process as much as we can."