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California’s Child Abuse Database (CACI) Violated Due Process

By Mark Wilson

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that California’s “Child Abuse Central Index” (CACI) database violates due process because identified individuals are not given a fair opportunity to challenge the allegations against them.

Under California Penal Code §11170(a)(2), any “substantiated” or “inconclusive” reports of child abuse are recorded in the CACI. Only “unfounded” reports – those that are “false, inherently improbably, an accidental injury, or does not constitute child abuse or neglect” – are not recorded. The standard of proof for dismissal as “unfounded” is high while the standard for inclusion is low.

The CACI information must be made “available to a broad range of third parties for a variety of reasons.” California agencies are required to search the database for information on applicants and the information is shared with out-of-state agencies. It is used to deny access to licenses and other important governmental benefits and jobs.

The suspected child abuser must be notified in writing when added to the CACI §11169(b), but state law does not offer a procedure for challenging a listing on the CACI. Inconclusive and unsubstantiated reports will be deleted after 10 years, §11170(a)(3), but “substantiated reports” are permanently listed.

In March 2001, Craig Humphries’s troubled 15-year-old daughter falsely accused him and her step-mom, Wendy, of child abuse. They were arrested and charged with child abuse and their other children were taken into protective custody. Those children denied any abuse and asked to return home but they were placed in foster care.

The investigating officer prepared a report identifying the case as a “substantiated report of child abuse” and a CACI listing was created identifying Craig and Wendy Humphries as child abuse suspects with a substantiated report.

Four months later, the trial court dismissed the criminal proceedings, finding the Humphries “factually innocent” and concluding “that no reasonable cause exists to believe that the arrestee committed the offense for which the arrest was made.” §851.8(b). The arrest records were ordered sealed and destroyed. The juvenile court also ordered that the Humphries retain custody of heir children and dismissed all counts as “not true.”

Despite these judicial determinations, California refused to remove the Humphries from the CACI and they were to be listed indefinitely as substantiated child abusers.

The Humphries sued in federal court, alleging that their inclusion in the CACI deprived them of due process. The district court granted Defendants summary judgment but the Ninth Circuit reversed.

The court found that the Humphries have a liberty interest under the “stigma-plus” test of Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693 (1976). “The stigma of being listed in the CACI as substantiated child abusers plus the various statutory consequences of being listed on the CACI constitutes a liberty interest.” Applying the three-part test of Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976), the court was “not persuaded that California has provided a sufficient process for ensuring that persons like the Humphries do not suffer the stigma of being labeled child abusers plus the loss of significant state benefits, such as child care licenses or employment. The processes in place in California do not adequately reduce the risk of error.” The court concluded that “in the end, this is not a difficult case. The lack of any meaningful, guaranteed procedural safeguards before the initial placement on CACI combine with the lack of any effective process for removal from CACI violates the Humphries’ due process rights.”

The court held that three individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity from damages. It then concluded that questions of fact regarding whether a custom or policy caused the deprivation of Humphries’ constitutional rights defeats the county’s motion for summary judgment. See: Humphries v. County of Los Angeles, 547 F3d 117 (9th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Humphries v. County of Los Angeles