That support could be vital to a Millersville woman who has advocated this change for seven years, arguing that Maryland needs to catch up to other states like Virginia and New York.
Maryland destroys the records of “ruled-out” child abuse cases 120 days after the date of filing, as long as no other reports on the same children are filed in that period.
A ruled-out case is one in which investigators didn’t find evidence of abuse. Supporters of the bills want the records kept longer to help investigators spot possible patterns of abuse; the state wants to keep them longer so it will have more robust investigative histories.
Opponents think the records should be destroyed so that accumulations of unproven allegations won’t be used in court cases.
Both sides say they are arguing for the rights of the innocent — one side for children who speak up about abuse, the other for people who should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Senate Bill 12, filed by Sen. Ed DeGrange Sr., D-Glen Burnie, would extend the time ruled-out reports are kept from 120 days to five years.
The bill would also extend the time unsubstantiated records are kept from five to 10 years. An unsubstantiated record is one in which there was not enough evidence to support allegations of child abuse or neglect.
Del. Ted Sophocleus, D-Linthicum, has filed the same measure in the House of Delegates as House Bill 7.
DeGrange filed a similar bill last year. It passed the Senate unanimously but ran out of time in the House.
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, Mickey Dunn, 46, of Millersville, said that when reports reach state agencies, children “did what they are supposed to do, they spoke up. But they feel as if no one cares, as if no one listens to them, because their report was destroyed within 120 days.”
This, she said, gives “predators and abusers a clean slate.”
Dunn said that in February 2008 she filed a report because she believed her child had been sexually abused by the father. She requested the child’s gender not be reported.
That report was “ruled out” the following month and was set to be destroyed 120 days from the date of filing. Dunn sent a letter requesting the record be preserved.
She said she filed a second report in July 2008 about an incident in Rochester, New York.
After a court fight in which she requested protection orders, Dunn received full custody of her child in October 2008. She began fighting to get Maryland’s law changed after learning that the records in the case were set to be destroyed in four months.
Dunn said she now feels safe from the father of the child, whom she said has left the country. Phone calls to the father’s last-known residence weren’t returned.
When Dunn testified in support of DeGrange’s bill last year, she learned the records in the case had been expunged, in spite of her efforts.
Both the House and Senate bills had committee hearings last week, in which representatives of child advocacy groups and the state Department of Human Resources, or DHR, testified for them.
DeGrange and Sophocleus said the measure is getting broad support in committee and they believe it will pass. DeGrange wants to get the bill to the floor earlier this year.
Keeping the records on hand longer, DeGrange said, means “there is a more extensive record, and there is a history in case of another incident. This bill helps build a case against an individual.”
Steve Berry, the in-home services manager for the DHR, said in an interview that records are destroyed so early that investigators sometimes find themselves retracing the steps of other investigators, who talked to the family about the same incidents five or six months earlier.
Maryland has one of the shortest hold times in the country, he said in his testimony to the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
The change would also help the department protect itself from lawsuits claiming negligence or deliberate indifference, Berry said.
The DHR asked the bill be amended so that unsubstantiated findings are retained for only five years, saying that is plenty of time. It also asked for the removal of language stating that records would be retained for the purpose of “determining a pattern.”
“Each ruled-out finding signifies a finding that no maltreatment occurred,” Berry told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Tuesday. “Multiple findings that maltreatment did not occur may not necessarily add up to a pattern of maltreatment.”
New York keeps unfounded child abuse reports until the youngest named child turns 28, unless the accuser is found to have given a false report or clear evidence is presented to refute the claim, according to that state’s Office of Children and Family Services.
Virginia keeps reports of abuse for a year after they are filed, whether those reports are found valid or invalid, according to the Virginia Department of Social Services.
Maryland Child Protective Services investigates about 25,000 to 27,000 child maltreatment reports a year, Berry said in an interview. About 40 percent to 45 percent of the cases are ruled out, and the records are soon destroyed.
Not everyone supports the legislation. The American Federation of Teachers submitted testimony on this year’s bills raising concerns that teachers could be deterred from working in Baltimore because of false reports lingering in the state’s files.
Defense attorney Peter O’Neill said in an interview that if the records are retained, judges could order ruled-out, unproven allegations used in divorce and custody cases, harming people who were never found to have done anything wrong.
“It is patently unfair to have records accessible that are ruled out,” O’Neill said. “As far as I’m concerned, if the matter is ruled out, there should be immediate expungement of the record.”
A similar bill in 2011, requested by the DHR, died in the House Judiciary Committee.
But Dunn said she is confident that this year the bills will get floor votes in the House and Senate. It won’t help her directly, she said, but it could help many other Maryland families.
Her child, Dunn said, “is safe now. This is about every other kid in this state who is being abused and whose voice isn’t being heard.”