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Child-Protection Laws Face Revisions in Three States

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A legislative task force in Florida last week recommended changes in the state's child-protection laws to allow more opportunity for due process before accused child abusers are listed on a central registry.

The proposals reflect a compromise reached by the state department of human resources, which oversees the child-abuse registry, and the state's major education groups.

In public hearings over the past two months, the education groups have charged that teachers, who are often falsely accused of misconduct or maltreatment, are not allowed adequate due process before being listed among alleged abusers. (See Education Week, Oct. 11, 1989.)

The confidential state registry is used to screen child-care workers for any past charges of abuse.

Among the proposals offered to lawmakers last week, however, the education department and school districts would also have access to the registry for screening.

The 13-member task force also recommended that opportunity for review and appeal of abuse allegations be provided before final entry on the registry. Currently, confirmed cases are listed, and expunged later if the individual appeals successfully.

The report also urges human-resources investigators to allow those accused of abuse legal representation while being questioned.

Several teachers have claimed that abuse accusations stemmed from their use of corporal punishment, which is legal in some Florida districts. The task force recommended clarifying the definition of abuse to avoid prosecution for school-sanctioned discipline.

A state appellate court this year upheld a lower court's ruling that the names of three teachers be removed from the confirmed list.

Several lawmakers, including Representative Frank Stone, who chaired the task force, plan to introduce bills based on the proposals when the legislative session begins in April.

Florida is one of several states attempting to rework child-protection laws this year.

In Colorado late last week, lawmakers were expected to adopt a bill that would tighten loopholes for abusive teachers by allowing districts to share data on employees accused of

abuse. The bill also clarifies teachers' obligation to report suspected abuse to social-service agencies.

As is contemplated in Florida, the Colorado bill would give the education department access to the central registry of child abusers for employee screening, and would clarify the distinction between child abuse and corporal punishment.

A separate Colorado bill expected to see final action this week would require fingerprints from all potential school employees to screen for a criminal record.

Georgia lawmakers late last week were also expected to pass package of child-protection bills that includes creation of a state child-abuse registry and new guidelines for reporting and investigating offenses.--lj

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