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Teen Wins Can Challenge Status as Child Abuser

CINCINNATI (CN) - A 13-year-old registered child abuser has standing to challenge this classification, the 6th Circuit ruled, declining to make the boy wait until he is denied employment in certain fields.

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services determined that D.W., as the court record names him, perpetrated child abuse based on claims that he touched another boy's penis and stuck his finger in the boy's butt.

In a lawsuit on D.W.'s behalf, his mother, Tonia Wright, claimed that Tennessee listed the boy on the child abuse registry without ever offering an administrative hearing to challenge the listing, an alleged violation of his due-process rights.

In denying such a hearing, Children's Services said D.W. did not qualify because the child-abuser classification did not affect his employment, according to the complaint.

Wright also claimed that her son was never allowed to review the file containing the allegations or the evidence against him.

Agreeing with the state, however, a federal judge in Cookeville found that the speculative employment effect of D.W.'s child abuser status did not present a justiciable case or controversy.

Children's Services commissioner Kathryn O'Day also argued that damage to one's reputation alone is insufficient to state a claim under the due process clause.

A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit reversed earlier this month.

"If D.W. is successful in his due process claims, he will be entitled to procedural protections that he otherwise could not get," Judge John Rogers wrote for the panel.

"This is enough for Article III standing as long as the procedures sought would lead to a concrete, particularized and actual benefit."

D.W. has the right to a hearing "because the interest that D.W. wants procedures to protect - his freedom from being classified as a child abuser - is sufficiently imminent and concrete," he added. "D.W. suffered an injury when Children Services classified him as a child abuser."

Though Tennessee countered that its law forbids the release of information about D.W.'s status after a two-year period, the panel noted that the same law does not require Children's Services to expunge the record after the two-year period.

"Therefore, even if Children's Services does not release information about D.W. after two years, the record is not expunged," Rogers wrote. "Since D.W.'s record as a child abuser may never be removed by the state, D.W. has suffered a concrete injury because the classification as a child abuser is, in effect, permanent."

The panel scoffed at claims that D.W. should have to wait until his status affects a future job opportunity.

"D.W.'s injury is actual because he has already been classified as a child abuser by Children's Services," Rogers wrote. "The District Court accepted the state's argument that no injury existed because the laws could change or because D.W. might not be interested in pursuing an occupation in child or adult care. However, highly speculative claims as to what might happen in the future are irrelevant to a determination of whether D.W. has alleged actual or imminent harm."

The panel concluded that "D.W.'s future interest in pursuing certain types of employment is unknown and uncertain, but this uncertainty does not keep D.W. from being affected now by being listed as a child abuser. D.W. has been classified as a perpetrator of child abuse, injuring him now in a concrete, particularized and actual way. He therefore has standing to challenge the adequacy of procedures by which he can defend against or challenge the classification."

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