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Finding that the lower court failed to give proper weight to the state’s interest in protecting children from abuse, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has reversed a Commonwealth Court ruling that raised the evidentiary standard the state Department of Public Welfare must meet in order to maintain information from child-abuse reports on its ChildLine and Abuse Registry.

Under the state’s Child Protective Services Law, a person seeking employment in which there is a significant likelihood of direct contact with children or residing in a family day-care home must provide certification that he or she is not on the ChildLine registry, the DPW’s toll-free system for disclosing reports of child abuse to certain designated government officials, law enforcement and other third parties.

In G.V. v. Department of Public Welfare, the justices unanimously ruled to reverse an en banc Commonwealth Court’s 5-2 decision that the DPW must meet the “clear and convincing” evidence standard rather than the less stringent “substantial evidence” standard in order to maintain information from reports on the registry.

Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, writing for the court, said the Commonwealth Court “engaged in impermissible speculation” when it found that the use of the ChildLine registry by certain government officials, law enforcement and third parties “‘creates the very real potential and probability for disclosure to groups and individuals not specifically authorized to receive the information.’”

McCaffery said the Commonwealth Court also improperly found that risk of harm to an individual’s reputation and livelihood outweighed the government’s interest in protecting children from abuse.

“The government’s interest in addressing the urgent need of abused children for protection from further injury and impairment encompasses both the child or children who were actually abused by the perpetrator, as well as any children who may potentially be abused by the perpetrator,” McCaffery said. “This goal of protection of any potential victims of a perpetrator identified in an indicated report was largely ignored by the Commonwealth Court in its assessment of the governmental interest at stake here.”

McCaffery was joined in the result by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justices J. Michael Eakin, Max Baer, Debra Todd, Correale F. Stevens and Thomas G. Saylor.

Saylor wrote a concurring opinion to note that, while he joined the majority in the result, he viewed “this to be a much closer case than is reflected in the majority opinion.”

Baer also wrote a concurring opinion, which Castille joined, saying he agreed with the majority opinion in its entirety and noting that, by allowing a lower burden of proof for creating and entering a report summary in the registry than for maintaining a report in the registry, “the Commonwealth Court created an outcome where the ChildLine registry will inevitably contain reports based on different evidentiary standards.”

In a 5-2 decision in G.V., the Commonwealth Court majority, led by Judge Anne E. Covey, found that while Children and Youth Services agencies are bound by the “substantial evidence” standard when issuing an indicated child-abuse report, the DPW must adhere to the stricter “clear and convincing evidence” standard when deciding whether to maintain a summary of such a report on its ChildLine registry.

Covey said cases in which a party faces “a significant loss of freedom or livelihood require clear and convincing evidence.”

“Even though the statute seeks to minimize disclosure of the ChildLine registry information, its actual use by the statutorily designated government officials, law enforcement and other entities and individuals in responding to the inquiries of employers, school districts, churches, Boy and Girl Scouts, and other organizations creates the very real potential and probability for disclosure to groups and individuals not specifically authorized to receive the information,” Covey said. “Accordingly, the potential loss of reputation and stigma associated with being named a child abuser on the ChildLine registry demands a higher standard of proof.”

Covey was joined by President Judge Dan Pellegrini and Judges Mary Hannah Leavitt, P. Kevin Brobson and Patricia A. McCullough.

Judge Robert Simpson dissented, joined by Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter.

McCaffery said the Commonwealth Court majority ignored the Supreme Court’s full analysis in its 1994 decision in R. v. Department of Public Welfare.

In that case, the justices found that because Section 6340(a) of the Child Protective Services Law provides that only certain people have access to the confidential registry, there was little harm to the defendant’s reputation in the eyes of the general public, according to McCaffery.

By ignoring that piece of the R. decision, McCaffery said, the Commonwealth Court misapplied the test for determining whether a person’s right to protect his or reputation was violated, established under the 1976 Supreme Court case Mathews v. Eldridge.

The first two Mathews factors require the court to identify the private interest that will be affected by an official action and whether there is substantial risk of the erroneous deprivation of that interest, according to McCaffery.

“Because it overstated both the potential and the probability for disclosure to groups and individuals not specifically authorized to receive the registry information, the court similarly overestimated the potential risk of deprivation of a fundamental interest and overvalued the benefit of employing the clear and convincing standard of proof,” McCaffery said.

In addition, according to McCaffery, the lower court incorrectly analyzed the third Mathews factor by failing to give the proper weight to the government’s urgent interest in protecting children from abuse.

Counsel for the plaintiff, Janice L. Martino Longer of Reese, Samley, Wagenseller, Mecum & Longer in Lancaster, Pa., could not be reached for comment on the ruling.

A spokeswoman for the DPW said the agency was “pleased with the result in the case, which is consistent with recently enacted legislation and will provide certainty regarding the evidentiary standard of proof in child abuse expunction cases.”

Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. •

(Copies of the 25-page opinion in G.V. v. Department of Public Welfare, PICS No. 14-0714, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •