Pennsylvania Supreme Court Requires a Lower Standard of Proof to Maintain Names on Statewide Register for Child Abuse

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court released on opinion earlier this week which overturned a lower court’s decision that clear and convincing evidence must be presented in order to maintain a name on the statewide register for perpetrators of child abuse.  In G.V. v. The Department of Public Welfare, the Supreme Court held that only substantial evidence is needed to maintain a name of a perpetrator of child abuse.

In Pennsylvania, when someone is accused of child abuse, there are typically two simultaneous investigations.  One is the criminal investigation, which could result in an arrest and criminal penalties such as incarceration, probation, fines, and possible registration on Megan’s Law.  To impose a criminal penalty and to list someone on Megan’s Law, it must first be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual committed the crime.  That is the highest standard of proof and is required in all criminal cases.

The second investigation is a civil investigation conducted by Children and Youth Services.  Even if no charges are brought criminally, or even if someone is ultimately found not guilty of a criminal charge for child abuse, CYS may still proceed with its investigation.  CYS can issue a finding of abuse and list someone on a state wide register as a perpetrator of child abuse. Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, there were essentially two standards of proof at play in every child abuse case.  In order to issue a finding of abuse, there must be substantial evidence to support that finding.  The Commonwealth Court imposed a higher burden of proof, clear and convincing, in order to maintain someone’s name on the register.  Therefore, CYS was permitted to maintain an indicated report of abuse, so long as there was substantial evidence to support their findings.  However, they were prohibited from placing that individual’s name on the register unless clear and convincing evidence could be presented to support the allegations.

Substantial evidence is evidence which outweighs inconsistent evidence and which a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. By contrast, clear and convincing evidence is evidence that is so clear, direct, weighty, and convincing as to enable the trier of fact to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the precise facts in issue.

The reason for the higher burden, the lower court reasoned, was because maintaining the names on a register effects one’s reputation.  Because reputation is protected by Article I, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the lower court believed a higher standard of proof was necessary.  The Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court’s conclusion that this higher standard was necessary, reasoning that only a limited number of people in very limited circumstances can access the register, and therefore the risk to one’s reputation is relatively low.