Cleared of child abuse, but unable to clear name
It has been nine years since Craig and Wendy Humphries were arrested by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy and listed as child abusers on California’s state index, based on a false report filed by Craig Humphries’ teenage daughter.
The charges were soon dropped, and a judge said the couple were innocent. Nearly two years ago, they won a landmark victory in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declaring California’s child-abuse reporting system unconstitutional because it offered no process for wrongly accused people to clear their names.
Yet, remarkably little has changed. The Humphrieses remain listed as reported child abusers, along with more than 800,000 others, on California’s central index. The state has established no appeal procedure.
Next month the U.S. Supreme Court will hear L.A. County’s appeal of the 9th Circuit decision that it must pay $58,000 to the couple’s lawyers, though the outcome is not likely to help solve the their predicament because the index is maintained by the state.
But the case will shine a spotlight on what advocates for falsely accused parents say is a nationwide problem. Though California is said to be the most difficult state for such people to deal with, experts say it is costly and time-consuming to have a name removed in many others as well.
“This is a national issue,” said Diane Redleaf, a lawyer in Chicago. She said millions of people are listed in state systems. “It has become a nightmare because” abuse reports “are used for employment screening, but the information is often not accurate. But at least in Illinois, you have a right to challenge it.”
Since Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974, all the states created central systems to collect reports of child abuse. Typically, teachers, nurses, police and others are required to submit a report if they see evidence that a child has been abused or neglected. Prospective employers in schools and child-care agencies usually check the state index before they hire employees to work around children.
But unlike California, other states give an accused person the right to a hearing to contest the report.
“California has the worst situation. In New York, Connecticut or Illinois, you get a hearing to clear your name,” said Carolyn Kubitschek, a New York lawyer who has sued on behalf of parents. “California has no such provision. If you are falsely accused, you have no way to go before a neutral person and say: ‘I am not a child abuser. Take my name off the list.’”
When asked about the Humphries case, state and local officials blame one another.
“The authority to add or delete people’s names rests exclusively with local reporting agencies,” said Christine Gasparac, a spokeswoman for Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown in Sacramento. A lawyer for Los Angeles County disagrees. “It’s the state’s database. The state could order them to be removed at any time,” said Timothy Coates, a Los Angeles lawyer for the county.
It is not just the Humphrieses who are suffering.
“Absolutely nothing has changed since the Humphries decision. The state doesn’t recognize the decision and continues to enforce a law even though they know it is unconstitutional,” said attorney Christopher Hartzog Clamon.
He is representing a Navy Seals instructor and decorated veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who was reported to San Diego social services as a possible child abuser when a teacher spotted bruises on his 5-year-old son.
“They just forward an allegation to the Department of Justice — absolutely no hearing, no notice. Nothing,” Clamon said. “The problem with my Navy guy is if I can’t somehow get him removed from this list before his next security clearance, the legal liaison from the Navy told me he will be administratively discharged and will lose all of his benefits.
“This guy is a real war hero and they’re doing this to him. I’ve begged, pleaded, done everything I can between all the agencies involved, and the answer is just ‘no,’” Clamon said.
Tanya Barling has a similar problem but cannot afford a lawyer to fight for her. It began when her rebellious 14-year-old daughter was arrested in March when a police officer saw the girl punch her mother at an Antelope Valley park. The police report on the teenager’s detention led to the mother’s being listed on the state’s index.
“I just feel overwhelmed and, like, who do I turn to? It makes you feel like a horrible person,” said Barling, breaking down in tears as she explained that she can’t afford to hire an attorney on her $12-an-hour income as an auto shop office manager. “This system has not done anything good for my family at all.”
Craig Humphries is a management consultant, and his wife, Wendy is a special education teacher. The 9th Circuit judges described the Valencia couple as “living every parent’s nightmare” of being falsely accused of the vile abuse of a child. The teenager had taken their car and gone to Utah to live with her mother, where she showed her mother and stepfather bruises from a medical procedure and said they were caused by abuse.
“For them, this has been exhausting, expensive and emotionally draining,” said Esther Boynton, their lawyer. “They have been litigating for nearly a decade, and even after the courts ruled the abuse allegations are false and the system is unconstitutional, the state and the county still label them as child abusers. It’s been an endless nightmare.”
Savage reported from Washington, Williams from Los Angeles.