LANSING, Mich. (WXYZ) - It’s a secret list that can cost you your family or your job. Once you’re on it, it can be very hard to get off. While some changes are being made to the law, many experts say it doesn’t go far enough.
The state maintains something called the Michigan Child Abuse and Neglect Central Registry and the sole power to label you an abuser lies not with a judge or a jury, but with child protective services workers.
And you may be surprised at how the state can define “abuse.”
Anita Belle says she’s never been convicted of a crime. But Belle’s name has been put on the Central Registry as a child abuser.
“Where is the due process,” asked Belle.
The Central Registry is maintained by Child Protective Services workers inside Michigan’s Department of Human Services, or DHS.
Right now, there are about 275,000 people on that secret list and many of them don’t even realize they are on it. You don’t have to be found guilty in court to be put on the registry. All it takes is the word of CPS staffers to label you an abuser, which can prevent you from getting certain jobs or doing volunteer work.
“A sex offender gets to be convicted beyond a reasonable doubt, and then they’re placed on the sex offender registry, but parents and grandparents and teachers -- for goodness sake, a child could just make up something,” Belle told 7 Action News Investigator Heather Catallo.
It was Anita Belle’s granddaughter who accused her and other relatives of spanking. And Belle’s case shows just how inconsistent the rules to get on the list can be: her CPS investigative report recommends Belle NOT be labeled an abuser.
“In your CPS report they say you should not be put on the central registry,” asked Catallo
“That’s correct,” said Belle.
“So how did you get put on the registry,” asked Catallo.
“I don’t know,” said Belle.
As the law stands now, once you’re on the registry -- you’re on for life. You can ask for a hearing in front of an administrative law judge to be taken off the list, although that’s not easy to do.
But the law is changing in September. The new law will limit your time on the registry to 10 years, unless you were put on the list for criminal sexual conduct, battery, life threatening injuries, abandonment, or exposing a child to methamphetamine production.
But those labels are not always what they seem: the 7 Investigators have documented many cases of parents being accused of abandonment or neglect when they were simply trying to get help for the children from the state.
“The current reforms don’t go far enough,” said attorney Elizabeth Warner, who is suing the Governor, DHS and other state officials because she says the secret list is unconstitutional.
“You should be given an opportunity before the harm happens, to get a fair hearing,” said Warner.
Warner says CPS has too much power.
“You just get on the registry, by a push of the button. By one worker,” said Warner.
“With no verification that the crime was actually committed,” asked Catallo.
“They believe that their investigation, even if it’s one sided, is all they need to ruin somebody’s life,” said Warner.
“What do you say to the people who say CPS has way too much power,” Catallo asked.
“Well, I think that is sometimes a relatively understandable position. But I also think it’s a pretty easy target… Our job is not to go in there and tear families apart, our job is to keep kids safe and to keep families together when it’s safe to do so,” said CPS State Manager Colin Parks.
Parks says people are only put on the Central Registry after CPS workers substantiate the abuse allegations. He also says it was actually DHS that initiated many of the reforms.
“Folks should not be on there for life, unless they’re really, really a long-term danger to children,” said Parks.
While the new law makes it mandatory that DHS send you a registered or certified letter telling you that you’re on the registry, there’s one thing some legal experts don’t like about the changes: you will only have six months to ask for your name to be removed before you lose that right.
“They may have to sign for a letter now, but do you think that’s enough for people to really understand the severity of what this means,” asked Catallo.
“We’ve worked on that letter a couple of times, and we can continue to work on it, if you’re concerned. If the question raised is the ease of understanding that document, certainly we as a department could take some responsibility and look at modifying that in making it easier to read and easier to understand,” said Parks.
As for Anita Belle, she demanded a hearing to get her name of the Central Registry, but before they ever got in front of a judge, state CPS workers realized they didn’t have enough evidence. So they had to
remove her name.
DHS officials say the new 10 year limit can be applied retroactively to many of the people on the registry. If you have been on the Registry for more than a decade, and if you were not put on there for an egregious offense (criminal sexual conduct, battery, life threatening injuries, or abandonment, or exposed a child to methamphetamine production), you should contact the local DHS/CPS office that put you on the registry and request, in writing, and expunction.
DHS officials hope to be able to automate the Registry soon, so it will automatically expunge people who have been listed for more than 10 years.
Here’s what you can do if you think you may be on the Central Registry:
If you want to dispute your placement on the Registry, tell your local CPS/DHS office. You have to tell them in writing (accompanied by a copy of your ID) that you want your name to be taken off the list. Legal experts say if CPS denies your request, you can ask for a Pre-Hearing Conference, as well as a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge.
If the Administrative Law Judge decides not to expunge your name from the Central Registry, you can appeal that decision in Circuit Court.
All of these procedures are completely separate from any family court case or criminal court case that you may be facing related to abuse or neglect allegations. Even if you get your children back or are found to be “not guilty” by a judge or jury in a separate court, you may still have been placed on the Registry internally by CPS.