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Task Force Weighs Child Abuse vs. Due Process

February 12, 1990

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ A kindergarten teacher near retirement breaks up a fight among her pupils and ends up on Florida’s computer list of ″confirmed″ child abusers.

A father of seven, twice named his school’s teacher of the year, brings in clothes for a needy student. Other teachers find the girl trying on a blouse in the cloakroom of a nearby classrooom, and he ends up on the list.

Those were two ″horror stories″ a teachers union attorney told a task force formed to study how the state handles child abuse accusations against parents, teachers and other caretakers.

Both teachers cleared their names, but not before they - like other innocent teachers - were hurt by the system, said Elizabeth DuFresne, an attorney for United Teachers of Dade.

″We have had in Dade County in the last two years, six teachers ... lose their homes while suspended without pay, three marriages break up, an entire emotional deterioration of one teacher who ultimately was justified on every single ground,″ Ms. DuFresne said.

The last example was a kindergarten teacher planning her retirement after 37 years in the classroom. The woman, who broke up a kindergarten fight, ″literally couldn’t handle being accused,″ Ms. DuFresne said.

Last year in Dade County, 57 teachers faced abuse investigations after breaking up fights, she said.

Ms. DuFresne was one of several education representatives at public hearings throughout Florida in recent months to urge the task force to recommend that lawmakers change the way the Florida Abuse Registry works.

Access to the registry is limited to Health and Rehabilitative Services investigators, police and prosecutors, who use the computer list to keep confirmed abusers out of caretaker jobs such as work in day-care centers. Public schools do not use the list for screening - the task force wants to change the system so they will - but teachers, like any other caregiver including parents, can be put on the list.

Educators say the registry violates the constitutional rights of the accused, listing them as confirmed abusers without a hearing, and even in some cases listing them for incidents of school-sanctioned paddling. Appeals cost thousands of dollars and take months, often while a teacher is suspended without pay.

″Confirmed″ abusers remain on file for 50 years, ″indicated″ abuse cases for seven years and ″unfounded reports″ for a year.

Last week, the task force decided to recommend changing the ″confirmed″ classification to ″proposed confirmed″ while people accused of abuse go through an administrative appeals process lasting no longer than 140 days.

The panel also decided to propose changing some ″indicated″ case classifications to ″indicated, undetermined perpetrator.″

Ms. DuFresne cited the case of the teacher who brought in the used clothes for a 12-year-old girl whose home was damaged by fire. After trying on a blouse in the teacher’s absence, the girl, who was in a class for children with emotional and learning problems, was found getting back into her own clothes.

The student said the teacher who gave her the clothes neither watched her try them on nor touched her, but after two hours of questioning she said she had been fondled, Ms. DuFresne said.

The story changed again when Ms. DuFresne was taking a deposition for criminal charges that had been brought against the man. The girl got details mixed up and became upset, Ms. DuFresne told the task force.

″She started crying,″ the attorney said. ″She said ’They all just wanted me to say something. I tried to say what they wanted me to say. That’s all.‴

By that time the teacher had been out of the classroom for eight months. The union had spent more than $30,000 in his defense, and he had spent $5,000.

Although the panel considered several aspects of child abuse, it focused on the concerns of teachers and administrators, who make up only a small percentage of those reported to the state and confirmed as abusers.

In fiscal year 1988-89, 132,805 abuse or neglect reports were made to the state’s Abuse Registry, according to B.J. Cosson, director of Florida Protective Services System, which runs the registry.

Only 796 of the reports involved public school employees, most of whom were teachers, and just 68 of those cases were ″confirmed″ cases of abuse.

Linda Harris, an HRS attorney, defended the system as constitutional, arguing that classification as a confirmed abuser is not final until after the appeal process is concluded. ″Teachers aren’t being singled out,″ she said.

″That was the special interest group that got heard from the most,″ said

Michael B. DeMaria, a psychologist specializing in child abuse, said he sympathized with teachers but was concerned with the emphasis on adults’ rights as opposed to protection of children.

″We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water,″ he said.

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