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Substantial Evidence Must Convince Court in Child Abuse Cases

A recent case decided by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, G.V. v. Department of Public Welfare, 125 C.D. 2011 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2012) has profoundly changed the burden of proof necessary to have someone listed on the ChildLine & Abuse Registry (“ChildLine”) as a perpetrator of child abuse.

In the above referenced case, G.V. was accused of abusing his sixteen (16) year old great niece C.S.  The alleged abuse was reported to Children and Youth Services (“CYS”) which conducted an investigation resulting in a finding of “indicated.”  Per the finding of “indicated”, CYS went forward and filed a report with ChildLine that G.V. is a child abuser.  G.V., disagreeing with CYS’s aforesaid report, timely requested a hearing.  G.V. lost the appeal. G.V. then appealed to theCommonwealth Courtarguing that CYS did not meet an appropriate burden of proof in order to rule against him.

An indicated report is one where “substantial evidence” is presented. “Substantial evidence” is defined as “[e]vidence which outweighs inconsistent evidence and which a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”  23 Pa.C.S. Section 6303(a).  If CYS cannot meet the burden of “substantial evidence”, then a finding of “indicated” is expunged.  Otherwise, CYS has the authority to report the “indicated” finding to ChildLine.  ChildLine is, according to the Court, used “by the statutorily-designated government officials, law enforcement and other entities and individuals in responding to the inquiries of employers, school districts, churches, boy and girl scouts, and other organizations creat[ing] the very real potential and probability for disclosure to groups and individuals not specifically authorized to receive the information.”  G.V argued that the “substantial evidence” standard is inappropriately low considering the impact a finding of child abuse can have on someone’s reputation.

The Court acknowledged that cases which involve a significant loss of freedom or livelihood, as well as cases involving child-related civil proceedings require clear and convincing evidence.  By contrast, the Court also acknowledged that the Pennsylvania General Assembly has specifically indicated that the lowest evidentiary standard is to be applied when the well-being of a child is at issue.  Absent from any existing law, the Court noted, is any guidance as to what evidentiary standard is required for listing someone on ChildLine or disclosing the information to a third party.  Indeed, the Court also acknowledged that few things are more serious to one’s reputation than a finding that child abuse is suspected against the party.

In conducting its analysis as to what the appropriate evidentiary burden should be for listing someone on ChildLine or disclosing the information to a third party, the Court started with the terms of the Constitution of Pennsylvania, which states in Article 1 Section 1 that protecting one’s reputation is among one’s fundamental “inherent and indefeasible rights”.  Therefore, as the Constitution places such a great emphasis on the right to the protection of one’s reputation, the Court concluded that it does require a higher standard of proof in order to satisfy the due process to take away that right.

The Court then looked to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania for guidance to develop a methodology for reviewing a due process violation.  The Supreme Court has laid out three (3) factors which must be analyzed: (1) the private interest that is affected by the official action; (2) risk of an erroneous deprivation of that interest; and, (3) the government’s interest.

Looking at the private interests potentially affected, the Court noted that the information on ChildLine  – which includes one’s name, the dates and nature of the instances of suspected child abuse, among other things – could be accessed for and/or by potential employers, school districts, civic organizations, adoptions, foster parenting, daycare operators, and other places and/or persons.  The Court ruled that having one’s name on ChildLine certainly impacts one’s freedom and/or livelihood. Indeed, based on the above, the Court noted that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court appreciated the fact that merely being on ChildLine is accompanied by a stigma to one’s reputation that cannot be exaggerated.  Therefore, the Court ruled that simply being put on ChildLine demands a higher level of scrutiny.  The Court then discerned that in Pennsylvania Law, in matters where rights and/or interests greater than simply money are involved, a clear and convincing standard has been consistently used.

Finally, the Court determined whether the government’s interest in having more complete reporting and investigation of child abuse, quicker protection of children from abuse, and improving the process for the above, outweighs erroneously depriving someone their good reputation, freedom, and livelihood.

After consideration of all of the above, the Court ruled that in order to secure a finding of child abuse, the evidentiary standard is “substantial evidence”; however, in order to have someone placed onto ChildLine, the evidentiary standard of “clear and convincing” must be met. In this manner the Court balanced the very real and present dangers of child abuse and efforts to combat it, with due process requirements present in other aspects of the legal process.

The Court was left in the quandary of not having a clear statutory legislative mandate dictating what the appropriate standard of proof is for the ChildLine.  As much as the idea of “protecting” child abusers may be distasteful, the G.V. decision comes with an acknowledgment that the previously used burden of proof of merely substantial evidence simply does not adequately protect the rights of those accused of child abuse.  Having one’s name placed indefinitely onto the ChildLine has been determined to be a significant loss of freedom.  Indeed, the registry is viewed by the Court as a “black list”.  Although listing alleged child abusers on ChildLine may serve to protect children from abuse, the Court is now making it clear that even such noble goals as protecting children must be checked against the depravation of the liberty of the accused due to the misapplied stigma of being mislabeled a child abuser.

Although the ruling appears somewhat innovative, or perhaps Solomonic in its apparent attempt to satisfy both concerns for children as well as the falsely accused, it may simply be judicial conformity with the spirit of existing procedures of the Department of Public Welfare (“DPW”) which do attempt to balance the rights and needs of both the victim and the accused.  As these sorts of cases unfortunately continue to arise, this ruling goes far in ensuring all parties receive adequate protection under the law by raising the bar for the DPW/CYS to hurdle when attempting to have an alleged child abuser perhaps permanently labeled as such.

Originally published on October 19, 2012 in “The Legal Intelligencer” and can be found here and reprinted in The Pennsylvania Family Lawyer in Volume 35 Issue No. 1 (March 2013)

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