Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Raises Evidentiary Standard to “Clear and Convincing” Standard of Proof for Maintaining ChildLine Registry Reports
A split en banc Commonwealth Court has raised the evidentiary standard for the Department of Public Welfare to maintain information from certain child abuse reports on the ChildLine and Abuse Registry, a toll-free system for disclosing reports of child abuse to certain designated government officials, law enforcement, and other third parties. Under Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law, a person seeking employment in which there is a significant likelihood of direct contact with children or residing in a family day care home must provide certification that he/she is not on the ChildLine registry. While it is undisputed that the state’s General Assembly has pronounced that substantial evidence must support a report, there was no legislative mandate regarding the standard of proof to be met for maintaining a report summary of the ChildLine registry.
In a 5-2 decision in G.V. v. Department of Public Welfare, Judge Anne E. Covey wrote for the majority and found that while CYS agencies are bound by the “substantial evidence” standard when issuing an indicated child abuse report, DPW must adhere to a stricter “clear and convincing evidence” standard when deciding whether to maintain a summary of such a report on the ChildLine Registry. In its reasoning, the Court noted the need to protect children and the difficulties associated with getting a conviction in a child abuse case, as demonstrated by the recent trial of former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky which took 10 victims to come forward “to get the momentum to win. . . .” Many cases do not have such overwhelming evidence. In order to encourage more reporting, a substantial evidence standard is applied when issuing a child abuse report. Following an investigation of the report, DPW must determine whether the report summary should be maintained on the ChildLine Registry. The Court found that the “clear and convincing” standard should be applied as a higher evidentiary standard to protect against erroneously damaging an alleged abuser’s reputation. The practical effect of the Court's opinion remains to be seen.
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