Over the next few weeks, 9,700 Utahns will receive letters indicating they are a potential threat to children.
They can ignore the letter and be placed on two future databases to be used for child welfare and licensing or they can appeal the finding to the state's Department of Human Services.Scott Clark, chairman of the board of the Division of Child and Family Services, says people should not ignore the letters and that they might be wise to contact an attorney.
The letters are the result of more than 200,000 records of alleged child abuse that have been collected by state officials since the late 1970s. Names were placed on the list whether the abuse was substantiated or not, leading Clark to call it a potential time bomb of litigation.
The 1998 Utah Legislature agreed and ordered the database overhauled. Lawmakers ordered state officials to notify people whose names appear on the list by July 1.
All appeals requested must be handled in administrative hearings by Dec. 1. By next spring, two databases will exist: one for child-welfare caseworkers only and another for the licensing divisions of the departments of Health and Human Services, which will include substantiated cases from the past 10 years. That database will be used to determine whether people can be child-care workers and foster parents.
Without warning and inadequate explanation, these letters may devastate Utahns, Clark says.
"Suppose the letter comes to your house and it's your husband," Clark said. "These letters will cause trauma in families."
Robin Arnold-William, director of the Department of Human Services, also urges anyone who feels he or she has been wrongly accused to request a hear-ing.
Because of the looming deadline, the department has not searched its records and state archives to determine whether case files still exist for all 9,700 accused. If someone requests a hearing and the file has been lost, his or her name will be dropped. However, if a request for a hear-ing isn't made, the department won't look for the file and will automatically place the person on the databases.
Clark wants people to be aware of the process and know they have the "absolute right" to request a hearing.
"Everyone should ask for a hearing. This is not a setup. The agency is not trying to get them. They need to do this," Clark said.
The letters will be sent out by certified mail this week, Arnold-Williams said. Letters will also be mailed to lawmakers, reminding them of the bill they passed and explaining the process.
The letters tell the person that, according to state records, he or she has been referred for abusing a child. The letter lists the date of the alleged incident and the type of abuse. Information about the victim must be requested.
If the letter is returned because the accused can't be found, the individual won't be placed on the databases. However, if they apply to work with children between now and Dec. 1, the department will send them a new letter.
Officials aren't sure what to do after Dec. 1. Because the law did not clearly define it, Arnold-Williams will go before the Child Welfare Oversight Legislative Committee June 26 to discuss that and other holes in the law.
- Department records do not track the age of an alleged perpetrator, so someone who committed an offense as a juvenile would get a letter and could be placed on the databases. However, juvenile records do not follow someone into adulthood, and Arnold-Williams questions whether this record should.
- Because the Legislature only defined six acts as cause to substantiate a case, people could have referrals for actions that were both included and excluded from that list. The different standards could force someone into two different appeals and two different hearings. Arnold-Williams has instigated emergency rules to solve that problem.
Still, Clark criticizes the process and the thousands of letters that are about to be sent.
"There are just many questions unanswered in this process. The Legislature created this artificial deadline of July 1, and that created the problem, and then the agency said we're not going to incur any fiscal impact (and search the files). Those two factors have created this nightmare."