11-Year-Old Boy Substantiated as a Perpetrator of Child Abuse
A young mother came into my office. Her name was Tammy.* She had an 11-year-old son named Dennis.* He was a quiet, shy, well-behaved boy who played sports and did well in school. But, Tammy explained, Dennis had been substantiated as a perpetrator of child abuse by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, and she was desperate to help him.
Tammy had a large extended family that lived in her community. Among this family was her cousin, Ally, who had a four-year-old son named Junior, and a five-year-old daughter named Lexie. Ally had had her share of problems – substance abuse, brushes with the law, and poor choices in men. Ally was also a compulsive liar.
But Ally was family, and Tammy felt an obligation to her. She helped her in many ways – giving her clothing that Dennis had outgrown, taking her children to school, helping her get a job. Tammy also babysat Junior and Lexie, whenever Ally needed. And Ally often needed a babysitter.
Junior was not an easy child to babysit. In addition to being an energetic four-year-old boy, he was very defiant and disrespectful. He was also dishonest, making up stories about his younger sister, often blaming her for things he had done.
One day Tammy got a call from a woman who identified herself as Shelia, an investigator with the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, Child Protective Services. Shelia wanted to talk to Tammy and Dennis about something that had happened with Junior. Tammy agreed to talk with Shelia.
The next day, Shelia showed up at Tammy's house, accompanied by a sheriff's deputy. Shelia explained that Junior had made some allegations against Dennis, and she simply needed to talk with Dennis about them. Shelia and the deputy took Dennis into another room to question him privately. Tammy had no concern about this, because she knew her son had done nothing wrong.
Shelia and the deputy asked Dennis if he had ever played with Junior. Of course Dennis said that he had. The deputy asked Dennis if he had ever touched Junior's private parts, and Dennis denied that he ever had.
When the interview was finished, Shelia asked Tammy some questions. Tammy was open and honest with Shelia, telling her that Junior often stayed at her home, and was sometimes alone with Dennis. Shelia explained that Junior had “disclosed” that Dennis had touched him in his private area.
A few weeks later, Tammy received a certified letter telling her that Dennis had been substantiated as a perpetrator of child sexual abuse. The letter also stated that Dennis was entitled to a “formal file review,” and that he could submit additional evidence for the department to consider.
Tammy requested the file review, and sent letters from numerous family members that explained how dishonest Junior was. She also sent letters from Dennis's teachers, which declared how truthful and respectful Dennis was.
But none of this mattered. Three months after requesting the file review, Tammy received another certified letter. This one informed her that the file review had upheld the substantiation, and that Dennis had no further right to appeal. That is when Tammy decided to see a lawyer.
She came to my office, desperate and despairing. My first action was to contact DCS and request a hearing. Much to my surprise, I received a letter telling me that Dennis was not entitled to a hearing. I could hardly believe this!
I did some research, and found that DCS only gave hearings to people whose employment would be affected by the substantiation. Since Dennis was only eleven years old, he did not have a job, so he did not qualify for a hearing. Under the rules in effect at that time, Dennis simply had to live with the substantiation.
This seemed outrageous, and I just could not accept it. I began reading about DCS's substantiation process, and the consequences of it. I learned that people who were substantiated could never work in childcare or adult daycare. They could never be foster parents, or live in a home that served as a daycare. They could never teach school. There were numerous jobs with Tennessee state government that they could never hold. Dennis's choice of careers was severely limited, before he even finished elementary school.
It became clear to me that DCS's rules were unconstitutional, and I knew that they must be changed. I did extensive research, and contacted DCS's legal department to explain that the procedure violated Dennis's constitutional rights. But my efforts fell on deaf ears. DCS simply did not care.
So Tammy, Dennis and I filed a federal lawsuit against the governor and DCS. DCS fought hard to keep Dennis from having a hearing, but the federal court eventually sided with us. In the end, Dennis was cleared. His substantiation was reversed.
In addition, DCS changed their rules. Now anyone substantiated for child abuse is, at least, entitled to a hearing.
*All names have been changed to protect clients' identity.