Does Michigan registry violate constitutional rights?

(WXYZ) - It's a list you probably never heard of, but once your name is on it, you can lose your job and reputation. It's not easy to have your name removed from the list, and a Michigan attorney says the process that adds tens of thousands of new names to the list every year may be unconstitutional.

It's called the Child Abuse and Neglect Central Registry, established and maintained by the State Department of Human Resources. Right now there are more than 350,000 names on the registry. Among them, however, are people who insist they have done nothing wrong to warrant their inclusion, and they say they have a great track record of caring for children.

Take Debbie and Kevin Turner of Jackson. Years ago they adopted their two-and-a-half year old niece Miranda when it became clear the child's parents could not care for the little girl. As Miranda grew, so did the evidence of mental illness and defect which included bizarre violent behavior and attacks on animals and adults in the house and at treatment facilities the child was taken to.  

"She's my niece," a tearful Debbie told 7 Action News. " I still care for her."

But, in the same breath, Debbie admits it hasn't been easy. "She started hurting dogs. She liked fire. She was cutting Barbie dolls heads off." Then Debbie added, as Miranda became a teenager, things got worse.  "We called the police at times because Miranda was violent. She always threatened she was going to kill me with a knife. She said I'm going to kill you and burn the house down."

"That's when I finally put my foot down and said I wasn't going to be threatened anymore," said Kevin Turner. "The fear factor was enough. The stress, the anxiety. Everything."

Two years ago the Turners made the difficult decision to give Miranda up to the state for treatment and care. That decision got them placed on the central registry.

In Battle Creek, Helen Miller and her husband have been fighting to get their names removed from the registry. "They took every foster kid I had. I had four at the time." That painful memory is part of a scenario that still puzzles Helen- how a mistake, and a family situation unknown to her and her husband has dominated their lives.

"After 26 years of doing foster care, you'd think you'd want to keep some people around that have changed kids' lives," Dan says. Helen and Dan Miller run a 90 acre horse farm and training facility outside Battle Creek where they have spent much of the past 26 years helping more than 100 children grow into productive adults. But just one mistake, allowing two teenaged foster children to stay the night with her daughter, got them placed on the central registry.

"She was seeing her ex-husband again," Helen said of her daughter. There were drugs in the house that she says the ex-husband was dealing on the side while working a blue collar job doing repairs. "We didn't know about it," she said. The kids were there when police conducted a drug raid. A DHS investigation followed, and two days later, four children were briefly removed from the Millers home. A judge heard the facts, gave the children back to the couple, but their names remain on the registry, which keeps Helen from doing the job she loves so much.

"I can't foster, I can't get a job anywhere, and background check, I can't get a job," she says.

Debbie Turner also lost the job she had for 17 years after the state put her on the registry. She worked at a head-start program as a secretary. Once on the registry, you can't have contact with kids, though Turner says she never had contract with children at her job. "What we did wrong was take a child, and love her and try to make her as our own, with our other children, and it blew up in our face," she says.

"Across the country there is abundant data that says that these registries are unreliable," says attorney Elizabeth Warner. "So, it's of no use to anybody to protect children." Warner represents Debbie and Helen in an effort to get them off the registry, which she says is very hard to do. According to the state, more than 350,000 people are on the registry, which is intended to protect children from people determined to be abusive or neglectful. Warner says the registry violates people's constitutional rights because they are not given their day in court to fight the abuse and neglect allegations before a child protective service worker puts them on the registry.

Warner says "actually, in our constitutional system, they can't cut off your electricity or welfare benefits without giving you a fair hearing first. But in Michigan, they can put you on the black list of child abusers, and they don't have to give year a hearing, and that's written in the law."

Not until you are put on the registry can you request

a hearing to get off the list.

"I'm guilty before I'm proven innocent and I didn't do anything," Debbie says.

But, Colin Parks who heads Child Protective Services, which is part of the Department of Human Services, defends how the registry works. He says everyone is thoroughly investigated before their name is added to it. "It is evidence based," Parks says. "It's not a subjective decision. The worker doesn't arbitrarily make a decision to put somebody on the registry."

Asked if the state should first hold a hearing before adding a name to the list, Parks said no, because there isn't time or resources to do it with more than 80,000 new child abuse and neglect cases under investigation every year. "Out of all of those cases, the expectation that somebody would be able to review those decisions would be a very time consuming task," he said. "I'm concerned that based on that volume if it would be possible."

Attorney Warner plans to sue the state over the central registry in federal court early next month. She wants Michigan to do what other states with registries have done: hold a hearing before a person is added to the list.

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