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Woman sues to learn who accused her of child abuse

leventhal March 7, 1997
Web posted at: 11:39 p.m. EST (0439 GMT)

In this story:

From Correspondent Brian Jenkins

BERLIN, Connecticut (CNN) -- Five times over two years, Susan Leventhal's children have had their bodies examined for bruises, their teachers and doctors questioned about signs of abuse, and their bedrooms searched.

Each time, the inspection came because child welfare officials had received calls from people claiming Leventhal abused her children.

"Three times, I was furious. Four times, I told them I was going to sue their agency. The fifth time, I did," she said.

Leventhal believes it's her constitutional right to know who accused her of child abuse.

Officials at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families say at least two people made separate reports, but they know the name of only one woman -- and won't give it to Leventhal. They say there's no reason to think any of the five reports were malicious.

dearborn

And David Dearborn, a worker at the Department of Children and Families, argues that revealing the names of such callers might deter others from reporting real cases of abuse.

"She will say, 'Well, they weren't true!' And they may not have been true," Dearborn said. "But that doesn't mean the person that made them was not making them in good faith."

Tens of thousands of phony accusations yearly

The few studies conducted indicate that of all the child abuse reports made in the United States, perhaps only 2 percent are deliberately false. But that still translates into tens of thousands of phony accusations every year.

For each family involved, the result can be devastating. A recent made-for-television movie illustrated the nightmare of false accusations. It was based on the case of the Timm family of Cass County, Nebraska, who suspected a woman they knew had made a false and vindictive claim.

children

"I think the hardest thing was putting the children in the police car, not knowing where they were going and when we would be seeing them again," said father Jeff Timm. It took the Timms a month to get their children back.

Susan Leventhal didn't lose her children, but her son Eddie Garcia says being examined left him "very annoyed, 'cause it's not true. They shouldn't have to do all this."

No teeth in Connecticut penalty for false reports

The Connecticut Legislature set down penalties last fall for filing a false report of child abuse. But the Connecticut law permits people to make anonymous complaints.

To make the statute work, law Professor Paul Chill argues, the Department of Children should require callers to give their names, to be held in confidence unless there's evidence of malicious intent.

"When the agency doesn't even know who's making the report, because the reporter hasn't told them and because the agency hasn't pressed them, as it's required to do, that obviously invites abuse," said Chill, a professor at the University of Connecticut.

Susan Leventhal suspects either personal grudges or racism spawned the calls made about her. Her estranged husband and the father of her three oldest children is Hispanic.

She wants to know for certain, though, whether the callers honestly thought she was abusing her children or just wanted to harass her -- and she hopes the courts will help her.

 
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