With critics calling it the "perpetrator protection act" and supporters saying it protects the innocent, a bill that would overhaul the state's child-abuser tracking system is becoming one of the most hotly debated issues of this year's legislative session.
Emotions of committee members and those who testified ran high Thursday when the Senate Human Services Committee sent SB17 on a split partisan vote to the floor of the Senate.
SB17 would allow only the names of those criminally convicted of child abuse — not those who have been designated as abusers by the state Division of Child and Family Services — to be included in the database used to screen job applicants for child-related businesses.
"This bill is referred to as the perpetrator protection act" among advocates for children in Utah, said Katie Gregory, staff attorney for Utah Children. "This puts the proverbial fox in the henhouse" and gives people out there who really want to hurt children access to them.
Bill sponsor Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said the bill in no way allows guilty abusers to go free but adds some common sense that will protect innocent people who have been run over by a system that believes that "in the name of the kids we can kill everybody else. Is it more important to protect a child or protect the innocent?"
Three people told committee members that their lives have been derailed by DCFS, which first incorrectly accused them, refused to take into account proof against the claims and ignored efforts to have their names taken out of the database, even after they have proved the state wrong in court.
Among them was Dennis Webster, who works for Buttars at the Utah Boys Ranch as a gate operator to the property. Because Webster was listed as a substantiated abuser in 1992 after what police agreed was a minor disciplinary incident with his 13-year-old son, Buttars said the state has told him he must fire Webster or lose his license.
"Substantiated doesn't mean I was accused, arrested or tried," Webster said. "Two years ago they sent a letter saying I needed to prove I was employable. We did what they asked, and a year later they sent another letter asking the same thing. They know full well I work there and they're just trying to get me off my job."
Buttars said he believes there are thousands of Utahns in Webster's situation.
One woman told the committee that placing her fingers over the mouth of a child at her day-care center and telling her that she was not allowed to bite became a case of full-blown child and sexual abuse. Despite being cleared and the charges dropped, she remains on the list and can't reopen her day-care center.
The accusations also falsely included her son who was waiting to go on an LDS Church mission. He was never part of the situation but he remains on the list, she said. "He is 21 and still waiting to go."
Another mother said her children were mistakenly put on the list as abusers instead of victims and 12 years later the problem still hasn't been worked out. "DCFS has never for one minute done any investigation," she said, adding that there is no due process in the system now.
Lorna Rosenstein, an advocate for parents who have adopted foster children, said she adamantly opposes the bill. She said that just because an abuser isn't convicted doesn't mean the abuse didn't happen. An abuser can even admit in court that it happened, but under the bill if charges are dropped because a child doesn't testify or for some other reason, that person doesn't have to be included in the list.
In the past fiscal year that ended June 30, DCFS had 17,515 referrals of abuse and neglect. The number of substantiated offenders in the entire database, called the SAFE Management Information System, was 7,289. Of those offenders, 4,383 are in the licensing portion that is the focus of the bill.
Someone who is accused does have opportunity to refute as well as appeal the claim, said DCFS director Richard Anderson.
But Buttars said that process is like trying to refute the IRS. "The IRS says you're guilty, so then you go to an IRS hearing. That's what you got here. It's all within the Department of Human Services. It's all the same family, and it's not unbiased."
Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill is a step backward and recreates a key problem that the state was sued over in 1993. Utah taxpayers spent more than $58 million and the system remains under federal court supervision to make sure it implements what it said it would do in the settlement.
Davis said the state must have an extremely high standard in screening people who could be around children and said it would be devastating if one day a child was abused by someone who the bill allowed to obtain a license. Sen. Edgar Allen, D-Ogden, said given the level of frustration with the system and the intensity of the feeling on the committee it would be irresponsible to pass the bill to the floor, suggesting some middle ground should be found instead.
"That's what I've been doing for the past year and haven't gotten anywhere," Buttars said. "We had set up conditions and compromises. But when they came back with a $2 million fiscal note that would killed it, especially this year, I said if we couldn't work something out I would try to do away with the whole database, which I'm still prepared to do."
Opponents say Buttars is doing just that with the bill he is proposing.
But just prior to the vote, Buttars said if the committee passed the bill he would be willing to try again to work out some compromises between now and the time it reaches the floor. "But if you don't pass this, it's business as usual."