PA 05-207—sHB 5057

Select Committee on Children

Human Services Committee

Judiciary Committee

AN ACT CONCERNING THE DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES AND CHILD ABUSE OR NEGLECT PROCEEDINGS

SUMMARY: This act generally prohibits the Department of Children and Families (DCF) from disclosing information about a person suspected of abusing or neglecting a child until the suspect has had a chance to exhaust the agency’s appeals process. The commissioner must adopt implementing regulations and develop notice, hearing, and appeals protocols by July 1, 2006 but must handle cases in conformity with the act’s provisions while doing so.

The act also establishes a timetable for purging DCF files involving unsubstantiated reports. And it permits people whose names were placed on DCF’s child abuse and neglect registry before May 1, 2000 to appeal that action if they have not already done so.

EFFECTIVE DATE: October 1, 2005, except the provisions related to delaying the release of information about suspected abusers, which are effective December 1, 2005.

REPORTS OF SUSPECTED ABUSE OR NEGLECT

By law, DCF must immediately evaluate each child abuse or neglect report it receives if the alleged perpetrator is a person (1) responsible for the child’s health, welfare, or care; (2) given access to the child by a responsible person; or (3) entrusted with the child’s care. Prior law required the commissioner to keep a registry of all reports she received. The act instead limits the registry to people reasonably believed, after an agency investigation, to have abused or neglected a child and continue to pose a risk to child health, safety, or welfare. It also prohibits her, in most cases, from placing an individual’s name on the registry or disclosing information about the report to anyone checking the registry in conjunction with applications for employment, licensure, or entitlement to receive state child care reimbursements until the suspect has exhausted or waived all agency appeals.

Permitted Disclosures

These privacy protections do not apply if DCF has completed its investigation and found reasonable cause to believe that abuse or neglect involves:

1. a child who has died, been sexually abused, suffered a serious physical injury, or is at risk for serious physical or emotional injury;

2. a suspect who has been arrested for committing the reported abuse or neglect; or

3. a person whose parental rights are already subject to court termination proceedings.

In such cases, the person’s name may be placed on the abuse registry as soon as the initial finding is issued and DCF may disclose information to any entity legally entitled to it. The accused may appeal the agency’s action pursuant to the procedures described below.

Other Confidentiality Protections

By law, DCF may disclose limited information about ongoing investigations that it determines are likely to be publicized. Prior law required DCF to keep the names or other individually identifiable information about the victim or other family members confidential. The act extends the same non-disclosure requirements to people suspected of having committed the abuse or neglect unless they have been arrested for the reported conduct.

Notice of Recommended Abuse or Neglect Findings

When DCF’s investigation results in a recommended finding of abuse or neglect, the act requires DCF, within five business days, to mail the accused a notice, which must include:

1. a short and plain description of the basis for its recommended finding;

2. a statement that the commissioner intends to place the individual’s name on its abuse and neglect registry unless he files an appeal;

3. a description of the potential adverse consequences of being listed on the registry, including its effect on obtaining or keeping a job that involves direct contact with children;

4. information about his right to bring an administrative appeal; and

5. a form he can sign and return indicating whether he intends to file an appeal.

Prehearing Agency Review

When an appeal is filed, the commissioner or her designee must complete a prehearing review within 30 days. She must review all relevant information to determine whether the recommended finding is factually or legally deficient and should be reversed.

Before beginning the review, she must give the accused access to all documents relevant to the recommended finding. He or his representative may submit additional documentation and, at the commissioner’s discretion, participate in a telephone or face-to-face conference to gather more information.

The commissioner or her designee must issue a written reversal of any recommended finding that she determines is factually or legally deficient. She must send notice of the outcome of her review (i. e. , either upholding or reversing the recommendation) to the accused by certified mail within five business days. If she upholds the finding, the notice must contain a brief statement of the allegations, the agency’s statutory authority, and information about the accused’s right to request an administrative hearing.

DCF Hearings

Individuals wishing to challenge the commissioner’s decision must request a hearing within 30 days of receiving it. DCF must schedule the hearing within 30 days of the request unless either party shows good cause for delaying it.

The accused may be represented by an attorney at the hearing. The commissioner has the burden of proving that the abuse or neglect finding is supported by a fair preponderance of the evidence submitted at the hearing.

Decisions

The hearing officer must issue a written decision within 30 days after the hearing concludes. It must contain findings of fact and conclusions of law on each issue raised at the hearing. The hearing officer can either reverse or uphold the commissioner’s finding.

Court Appeals

Suspects aggrieved by the hearing officer’s decision can file an administrative appeal in the Superior Court. They may seek a court order staying the agency’s implementation of its decision until the court proceedings are concluded. Otherwise, the commissioner can place the accused’s name on the registry while the court case is pending and, on request, disclose it and make copies available to any entity entitled to ask for it. She must ensure that the registry accurately reflects the abuse or neglect finding and cannot disclose information other than that permitted by law.

UNSUBSTANTIATED CASE FILES

The act requires DCF to seal records containing unsubstantiated abuse and neglect allegations, but may grant access to agency employees who need it to properly discharge their job duties. It requires the commissioner to destroy unsubstantiated case files five years after DCF completes its investigation if it has not received another report involving the suspect. But if a suspect has more than one unsubstantiated report within this period, DCF must keep the records for five years from the date it completed the most recent investigation.