Monday, March 10, 2008

Bill would criminalize false abuse charges

MARTINSBURG—Nine times, one aggrieved father says he fought to protect his name and his relationship with his daughters after he was accused of child abuse in a custody dispute.

The man, whose name we will not use to protect the identity of his daughters, said he is pleased that West Virginia legislators last week passed a bill that slaps criminal charges on those who falsely report child abuse or neglect in order to influence a custody case.

On Thursday, state senators passed House Bill 3065, after the measure met overwhelming approval in the House of Delegates last week. The bill charges those who makes a false abuse report with a $1,000 fine, or forces the plaintiff to pay for the defendant’s legal fees. The misdemeanor crime would also carry a punishment of up to 60 hours of community service.

The man, previously a resident of Huntington who now lives in Burlington, Ohio, said in 2003 and 2004, he was accused of breaking and entering, assault and sexual and physical abuse against his two daughters. Faced with serving at least one year in jail and losing custody of his daughters, the man fought the charges.

“They were never proven to be false. They were said to be ‘unsubstantiated.’ They found me not guilty. But I know I’m innocent. I want the satisfaction of knowing that on my record it was a lie, but I’ll never get that,” said the man, who said he spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to prove his innocence. “People have no idea how much time and money this wastes in the system.”

In West Virginia, from March 2007 to March 2008, West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Child Protective Services received and did paperwork on 37,165 incidents of child abuse. From those, 26,904 cases were further investigated, said John Law, spokesperson for WVDHHR. Only 3,998 cases were found to be substantiated, or less than 20 percent of all investigated incidents.

“There are circumstances of false reports. If it’s done intentionally, certainly it’s wrong. But there are also circumstances where someone says something and it is later found to be unsubstantiated. It doesn’t mean people lied, it means they reported in good faith something they perceived as child abuse,” Law said. “A lot of (cases) are proven to be unsubstantiated.”

Law said HB 3065 is a bill DHHR will be looking at “very closely.”

The lead sponsor of the bill, Delegate Jeff Eldridge, D-Lincoln, said that based on the statistics shown to him, the state spends as much as $18 million per year investigating and processing false abuse allegations.

“So much paperwork and so many man hours are spent investigating abuse allegations and some of them lack sufficient evidence. This bill makes people follow through with their allegations. If they file charges, then there will be a hearing on it,” he said.

Eldridge said the bill is a victory for people who truly are abused, and if passed, would save state taxpayers money.

“If the fathers or mothers are truly abusing the spouse, this bill will hold them accountable. At the same time, if they’re not truly abusing them, then there will be penalties for whoever filed it. There are consequences to this behavior.”

Sen. John Yoder, R-Jefferson, voted in favor of the bill.

“I think it’s only reasonable that people who deliberately make false reports of child abuse should be held accountable because it causes a very high degree of disruption to the family and encourages further fighting,” Yoder said. “We hold the people who go into the courtroom accountable for their words and we can charge them with perjury. I don’t see why someone who swears out a false complaint should not also be held accountable.”

Ron Foster, Region 4 coordinator for Men and Women Against Discrimination, or MAWAD, said HB3065 came about because more and more people have been using false allegations in Family Court to have one or more parents removed from the house.

“This is a huge issue. The children get hurt when false allegations are made because they’re denied the opportunity to spend time with the parent at a time when they need the parent the most,” he said.

The false allegation sets the stage for how much time the accused parent spends with the child after the alleged abuse occurs, and is a tool used regularly in cases involving sexual abuse, child abuse and domestic violence against the spouse, Foster said.

“This bill will definitely benefit child custody proceedings,” he said. “We are wasting an inordinate amount of court time. We believe this bill will have a significant effect on the number of cases that go through the court system.”

A study conducted in 2007 by MAWAD reviewed all requests and cases involving protective orders in Cabell County Family Court for 2006. The study determined that 76 percent of all cases were dismissed for one reason or another.

Berkeley County Family Judge Sally G. Jackson acknowledged that some of the allegations of domestic violence that she hears are proven false, but said that doesn’t mean the person making the accusation lied.

“What somebody thinks is domestic violence, I may not, and I may dismiss the case. But that doesn’t mean they’re lying,” she said. “I have to say sometimes there are cases where it seems people file charges not for very good reasons.”

Jackson said many times parents bring domestic violence petitions because a child says something about one of the parents and describes the incident different than it actually was. And what a child says to one parent may not be the same thing said to another parent, she said.

It’s for this reason, Jackson said, that parents must communicate with one another.

“Generally, the first thing a parent should do if a child comes home from visitation (and says something happened) is call up the other parent to see what happened,” she said. “Parents need to keep their lines of communication open. Parents get so wrapped up in hurting each other, that they forget they’re hurting their kids.”

For the man, the bill may be too little too late, but that’s because he now lives in Ohio.

“I have little to no faith in the judicial system any longer,” he said. “Every time I turned around I was being arrested for something I never did. I see how easy the system was to manipulate. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I don’t want someone to go through the hell I went through.”

He described his relationship with his children as “great,” but every now and then, he said, they ask him why he went to jail.

Now, he said he uses the experience as a teaching tool to show his children the problems that are caused when people lie.

“I use it to teach them to be honest,” he said. “I went to jail because someone lied.”

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