Sunday, March 12, 2000

Child abuser lists can fall short


Registries not linked nationally

BY JANICE MORSE
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Roy Puckelwartz and Stephen Billand, formerly foster parents in Warren and Clermont counties, sit behind bars facing charges of molesting boys in their care.

        Both men have pleaded not guilty, and authorities found no previous child abuse conviction for either man. But, officials say, that's probably because the pair moved to new states before anyone could fully investigate allegations against them.

        “(Child molesters), by their very nature, are like gypsies: They move on to another location once the heat gets on,” says Michael A. Fox, a Butler County commissioner and critic of Ohio's child protection agencies. Mr. Fox, who has raised concerns about his county's placement of children with Mr. Billand, is among child advocates who say states need to keep better tabs on people who are suspected of child abuse.

        Nearly all states keep a central registry of abuse allegations — even allegations that didn't lead to criminal convictions or even charges. Those databases need to be nationally linked, some argue; others are wary of “Big Brother” storing more information on individuals, including those who might be falsely accused.

        The dilemma: balancing protection of children against the rights of the accused.

        “My problem with it is that this is a label. It's like a scarlet letter, and the states are not uniform in how you get on the list and how you get off of it,” says Kimberly Hart, executive director of the National Child Abuse Resource and Defense Center near Toledo. “I know of one person who got off the registry in Texas, but went through an unrelenting hell to do it.”

        In Ohio, an anonymous phone tip could land a person on the list, confirms Jon Allen, spokesman for the agency that keeps the registry, the Ohio Department of Human Services. A state task force is debating whether new criteria for the list are needed, Mr. Allen says.

        He said, however, that people's reputations and rights are protected because the list is shared only among children services agencies and isn't made public.

        But there are other problems with Ohio's registry, says Dennis Yavorsky, 47, of Bridgetown.

        “They do not have a system for screening false claims. I know, because I ran afoul of the system,” says Mr. Yavorsky, who belongs to several groups critical of children services agencies in Butler and Hamilton counties.

        Mr. Yavorsky says he spent three years and $110,000 in legal fees fighting to remove his name from the state list, “and it was worth every cent.” Mr. Yavorsky says he caught his teen-age daughter disobeying him by smoking cigarettes, so he slapped her. Her friends retaliated by accusing him of child abuse, he says.

        Mr. Yavorsky was acquitted of a domestic violence charge, then won a $30,000 defamation lawsuit against Hamilton County last year, along with a court order removing him from the list.

ACLU: Be careful
        Mr. Fox agrees that Ohio's registry, established in 1966, needs revamping. As a former state legislator, Mr. Fox says he realizes the problems should have been fixed years ago. “In hindsight, it was a screw-up,” he says.

        Still, Mr. Fox says cases such as those involving Mr. Billand and Mr. Puckelwartz highlight the need for a national database.

        Mr. Fox plans to ask U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, to consider proposing national legislation for such a database.

        If it's handled properly, a national database could better protect children while preserving constitutional rights, says Scott Greenwood, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

        “Tracking child abuse allegations among child protection agencies — that's a pretty narrow purpose, and that, in my opinion, makes the creation and maintenance of that database constitutionally OK,” he says. “I have a problem if the databases are misused. They would clearly be misused if they were posted somewhere for everyone to see.”

        For that reason, creating a nationally accessible database must proceed under a yellow caution light, Mr. Greenwood says.

        “Linking them nationally certainly presents more opportunities for privacy rights violations, so there are serious concerns,” he says. “But the fact that somebody moves from one jurisdiction to another, that should not defeat an effort to obtain information about that person's past. Our children's safety does not stop at the county (or state) line.”

Warning signs hidden
        Officials say red flags were raised about both Mr. Puckelwartz and Mr. Billand in other states before either was charged in Ohio.

        Mr. Puckelwartz, 44, faces 10 sex charges involving three boys who were under his supervision in foster care at Midwestern Children's Home in Harlan Township, Warren County.

        Warren County officials, citing the pending court case against Mr. Puckelwartz, won't say why they didn't charge him in 1993 when allegations were first raised about him at Midwestern. Mr. Puckelwartz's lawyer, Don Oda, has asked a judge to consider dismissing the charges, arguing that a six-year time limit for prosecution has expired.

        Midwestern first learned of sex allegations against Mr. Puckelwartz from a youth who knew him as a minister in Michigan. The allegations, which surfaced nine months after Mr. Puckelwartz was hired, prompted Midwestern officials to confront him. They weren't satisfied with his response, so they fired Mr. Puckel wartz, says Chris Jones, spokesman for Midwestern, a state-licensed private child care agency.

        Midwestern officials were dismayed, he says, because Mr. Puckelwartz had come with impeccable references. Besides, a thorough, national criminal background check on him came up clean.

        “We actually exceeded requirements in screening (Mr. Puckelwartz),” Mr. Jones says. “These are very deceptive people. ... You scratch your head and say, "Oh my gracious, how did that happen?'”

        Officials later learned something the records check didn't show: Mr. Puckelwartz was charged in 1978 for allegedly performing oral sex on a 12-year-old neighbor boy while in Mobile, Ala. That charge, dismissed for no specified reason, apparently also escaped notice of authorities in Florida, Mr. Jones says.

        At the time of his December ar rest in St. Petersburg, Fla., Mr. Puckelwartz was employed as a gym teacher — and he and his wife also were attempting to adopt a 2-year-old nephew.

A trail of suspicion
        Victoria Reden, a detective with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, began investigating Mr. Billand in 1997 after two teen-age boys who were living with him in California alleged he had sodomized them at gunpoint.

        Ms. Reden searched Mr. Billand's property. She found photos that had been taken at his former home in Clermont County in the 1980s. Those photos formed the backbone of a Clermont indictment against Mr. Billand. He is set to go to trial April 17 on 32 sex-related charges, and faces two dozen other sex charges in California.

        Ms. Reden kept digging.

        She learned that one of Mr. Billand's relatives had alleged that Mr. Billand, now 51, took lewd photos of young boys when he lived in Hawaii in the 1970s. Those photos were given to police, who destroyed them after none of the boys pictured could be identified, Ms. Reden says.

        Mr. Billand moved to Florida, where he was arrested on a charge of sale of obscene material in 1973. Ms. Reden was unable to find the outcome of that case.

        Next, Mr. Billand ran a foster home in Warsaw, Ky., before moving to Ohio and, ultimately, California.

        Although Mr. Billand's Ohio foster home was in Clermont County, only Butler County Children Services placed youngsters there from 1986-88, Ms. Reden says.

        Ms. Reden says she was astounded at the lack of records that Butler County kept on Mr. Billand, and was appalled by the cursory investigation of his background. “It was bad even by 1986 standards,” she says.

        Butler County officials checked for criminal records on him in their county only, even though there's no reason to think he ever lived there. They failed to check records on his Ken tucky foster home, Ms. Reden says, and would have learned about Kentucky officials' concerns. Ms. Reden says she learned that Mr. Billand had associated with known drug traffickers. She says he falsely claimed he had a wife, a doctorate in microbiology, and special training for dealing with troubled kids. And his foster home was damaged by an arson blaze just before a scheduled inspection by authorities, she says. No one was charged in the arson.

System improving
        Kathy Vallance, the newly appointed director of the Butler County Children Services Board, says Ms. Reden is “absolutely right” that further checking should have been done on Mr. Billand. However, she says, state rules today require records checks to be more thorough than they were in the 1980s.

        Now prospective foster parents must undergo a statewide records check, which is also supposed to include the federal criminal database. And anyone who hasn't lived in Ohio for at least five years must show proof of their previous residence and pass a records check there, too.

        Penny Wyman, director of the Ohio Association of Child Caring Agencies, says situations like those involving Mr. Billand and Mr. Puckelwartz unfairly “splash mud” on the majority of foster parents who are doing their best to care for children.

        But Ms. Wyman, who is working on a statewide task force to improve child protection, agrees that such cases seem to point out holes in the safety net designed to protect children.

        “It's frustrating,” she says, “because the American system of justice says you're innocent until proven guilty, and I think our due process rights are dear to us. ... (But) the price we pay for that is that some of these people, with the system we now have, are getting by us.”

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