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Police: Law change makes child abuse hard to track

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Law enforcement officers and child welfare advocates are concerned about a little-noticed change to California's child abuse database, saying it could hamper their ability to keep tabs on hundreds of suspected abusers who work with kids outside the home, including teachers, coaches and clergy.

The database is used to flag such people when they apply to work with kids, adopt or take on foster children. It was changed in 2011 to protect the rights of the accused and shield the state from lawsuits, but one provision prohibited police from submitting suspects' names to it.

That meant that the nearly five-decade-old repository now only has names added by state welfare agencies, which report people in charge of a child's custody or care such as parents, guardians or foster parents. Police say this creates a gap in information that limits their ability to establish a pattern of abuse, especially if a suspect moves often.


It's not known whether anyone who previously would have been flagged went on to abuse a child since the law's change, though police and social welfare groups are concerned that could happen.

"My worry is that an institution like a school district, a preschool or somebody is going to run an individual to see if he has any history and come up with nothing, when in fact law enforcement had an investigation," said Los Angeles County sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott, of the Special Victims Bureau.

On Friday, Los Angeles County's Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect unanimously approved a motion at its annual meeting to recommend the change be rescinded.

The law's author, State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, stands by the change, saying it was needed to ensure innocent people weren't unfairly flagged and noting that police still have the power to arrest someone if they can substantiate allegations against them.

"They can't just place somebody's name (in the database) just because they think somebody's guilty," he said.


The dispute over the database is an example of the balancing act between the mission of law enforcement and child welfare agencies to identify abusers and prevent them from victimizing more children and the need at the same time to protect the constitutional rights of the accused.

Since its inception in 1965, the Child Abuse Central Index has been tweaked repeatedly. It's housed by the California Department of Justice and includes basic information like name, birth date and the agency that can be contacted for more information.

The index is used by police, child welfare agencies placing foster children, and in employment screenings by schools, childcare providers, and organizations like the YMCA that work with youth.

Though the database has been around for decades, it was a 1980s case in the San Francisco Bay Area involving a daycare provider who over years abused dozens of children and murdered one that invigorated efforts to ensure a robust central repository of suspected abusers, said Lawrence Bolton, former chief counsel of the state's Department of Social Services.

Eleanor Nathan had been investigated by multiple jurisdictions, but the case against her stalled because police were unaware of her past. It was a doctor who recognized injuries on a toddler matching another child who went to the same daycare provider, who connected Nathan to the abuse.

The latest change, approved by the Legislature without any significant opposition, was the result of the state spending millions of dollars to defend lawsuits brought by people whose names appeared on the database though no criminal charges were brought.

Ammiano's original bill sought to block from the database cases in which an investigation of abuse allegations was inconclusive and to ensure an appeals process to remove someone's name. But then the provision was added to bar all police reports, including "substantiated" cases in which an investigator believes evidence "makes it more likely than not" that abuse occurred, but that the person may never be arrested, charged or convicted of a crime.

As of April, the database held 672,634 individuals with substantiated cases, 41 percent of which came from law enforcement reports that were submitted prior to the change, according to the state Department of Justice. No law enforcement reports were added since the change.

The change received little attention at the time and even many law enforcement agencies weren't aware until after it took effect. Long Beach police Sgt. Janet Cooper said her department found out when the reports it forwarded to the state were returned months after, raising concerns for her about the potential problems omitting such information could cause.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Lt. Wayne Bilowit, who tracks legislation for the agency, said "it was a failure on everyone's part."

"It was a very long bill," he said. "I don't think we all understood, particularly those in Sacramento, how all the pieces fit together."

John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association, said the group had no hand in the details of the provision but will study whether they need to push for a change. Nick Warner, a lobbyist for the California State Sheriff's Association, did not recall the language in the bill.

Ammiano rejected claims that law enforcement was unaware of the change. "We had a thorough legislative process and a vetting, we talked to both houses, and law enforcement was part of that process," he said. "I think that they're beating a dead horse."

There's no statewide data to determine how many people were kept off the database since the change. But in Los Angeles County alone, Scott estimated his department had at least 375 substantiated cases last year. And the county's child welfare agency is reviewing the impact of the law change.

Scott and other law enforcement officers argue that it's not always possible to make an arrest despite evidence that substantiates allegations. Sometimes the case is beyond the statute of limitations, the victim is too young to testify, or the prosecutor may not believe there's enough evidence to meet the "beyond a reasonable doubt" threshold and declines to press charges. Without an arrest, no record is generated.

"Do you want us to arrest every single person because that's the only way they're going to be tracked?" Scott said.

Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, supported Ammiano's bill but is willing to look at it again.

"We want as much information in as constitutionally permissive to keep kids safe," while balancing due-process rights, Mecca said. He said he would be open to having a discussion with police and child welfare advocates to hear their suggestions to improve the current database.

"The Legislature has been moving that needle" for decades, Mecca said. "If there's an argument for another tweak of the needle, maybe there is."


Tami Abdollah can be reached at .