Court provides new protections for children in abuse and neglect cases

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News from Washington (state)

The Washington State Supreme Court made it easier for the state to revoke home child care licenses for abuse and neglect, in a ruling heard by the full court released July 7.

The decision lowers the burden of the proof necessary for the state to remove a home child care license from a “clear and convincing” to a “preponderance of evidence” standard, the lowest of the three main standards of proof. As a result, the court overturned its 2006 decision in Ongom v. Department of Health, which held that the provider had a constitutional property right to the license and held the “clear and convincing evidence” standard for revoking the license of a care provider.

In its July 7 ruling, the court differentiated between the license of a home child care provider and licenses that require more stringent requirements such as those for a physician’s license, noting that individuals seeking a home child care license are only required to undergo 20 hours of state-mandated training.

The ruling also argued that the state’s hearing process for revoking a license already “sufficiently protects” providers from arbitrarily losing their license and that the state’s compelling interest in protecting children from home child care providers warrants the lower burden of proof.

“The State holds the highest interest in the protection of children. In fulfilling its obligation to protect children, the State must be able to regulate the providers and facilities to which we entrust their care,” Justice James M. Johnson wrote for the 7-1 majority. “A requirement that the Department perfect its case to a quasi-criminal standard of proof could endanger children and ignores the reality and the responsibility of the State to protect its most innocent and vulnerable residents.”

The provider at the center of the case worked as a licensed home child care provider for 22 years. In 2000, the state became concerned about her teenage son, who received a juvenile conviction for harassment, intimidation of a student and fourth-degree assault for threatening a person at school with a knife. Under a new safety plan, the teenager returned to the home in 2003. Three years later, the teenager was convicted of first-degree child molestation and incarcerated, prompting the state Department of Early Learning to revoke the provider’s license.

An administrative judge overturned the decision but a review judge reversed the decision and ordered that the license be revoked. Along with the state Supreme Court, the order was affirmed at the superior court and court of appeals levels.