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MO Supreme Court grants more rights for abuse suspects

By AP/KWMU

Jefferson City, MO – The Missouri Supreme Court Tuesday gave more legal protections to people accused of child abuse or neglect.

The ruling says people must be given notice of the allegations against them and receive a hearing before a state board before they can be put on a registry of people suspected of abuse or neglect.

The decision largely upholds a lower court's ruling more than a year ago that declared Missouri's child abuse registry procedures unconstitutional.

The court said Missouri was depriving people of their due-process rights by allowing them to be included on the blacklist based solely on the determination of a state child-abuse-and-neglect investigator or supervisor.

The state child abuse registry is kept secret from the general public, but child care providers and others use it to screen current and potential employees. People listed on the registry effectively are barred from the working at child care facilities.

Tuesday's ruling stemmed from a Jan. 2, 2003, anonymous call to a state hot line alleging the chief executive officer and an employee at the Faith House child care facility in St. Louis had negligently failed to supervise the children in their case. The state Department of Social Services put the women on the registry based on an investigator's finding of the probable cause of neglect.

That decision was upheld by the Department of Social Services' Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board, which holds only informal hearings, not ones following judicial procedures.

Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan said putting people on the registry before a hearing in which witnesses are under oath, can be cross-examined and can be compelled to testify violated due-process rights. He also said the hearings must use a tougher-to-prove criterion of "preponderance of the evidence" instead of "probable cause."

A change in 2004 state law already had required that the "preponderance of evidence" standard be used but did not require a hearing be held.

The Supreme Court upheld the requirement for a hearing with the "preponderance of evidence" standard before a registry listing can occur. But the court said due-process rights did not require testimony under oath and the Legislature was free to require or not require other procedural protections at administrative hearings.

St. Louis attorney Timothy Belz, who represented the Faith House employees, said the ruling was an '80% victory' that should result in the women's names being removed from the registry of suspected abusers. The ruling also should affect numerous other cases around the state, he said.

"What the Supreme Court did here was emasculate the central registry system to the extent that they could without opening a Pandora's box as to every administrative hearing in the state," Belz said.

The state had argued that placing people on the registry before a hearing was a reasonable step to protect children from potential abuse. Any stigma that came with that listing did not amount to a constitutional violation, the state had claimed.

The state Department of Social Services, which oversees the registry, said Tuesday evening that it was still reviewing the Supreme Court ruling.

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