NORTH SALT LAKE Utah (News4Utah) – It was a knock on the door two weeks ago that has Catherine Cleveland both upset and puzzled.
Two weeks ago, a social worker from the state’s Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) came to her home requesting an inspection.
Cleveland is a mother of two children and a defense attorney. She soon learned someone in her neighborhood filed a complaint that she was housing sex offenders with children present. She also was told her 6-year-old was found outside unattended.
“I would never let a sex offender live in my home,” said Cleveland.
As an attorney Cleveland defends sex offenders who have been charged with crimes.
She said that line of work may be creating hard feelings in her neighborhood.
“I’m not just doing anything to put them out on the street,” Cleveland said. “If they’re guilty usually the evidence is there.”
She said the complaint doesn’t make sense. Sex offenders are required by law to register on the sex offender registry. She said neighbors would know if there is a sex offender living on their street.
“If they were unregistered and had them living in my home, I could lose my bar license and face criminal charges,” Cleveland said.
The complaint also was about her child being left alone outside her home. But Cleveland said a new law allows that. The “free range parenting” bill was signed into law by the governor this year and went into effect May 8. Cleveland said the law was already in place when the social worker came to her home.
“That was moot,” she said. “Children can play outside unattended.”
Despite her protests, the social worker still inspected her home.
“We are required by law to go in and investigate these things because unfortunately half of the time it is a valid concern and there is abuse and neglect,” said Ashley Sumner, a spokesperson with DCFS.
Sumner said they would rather error on the side of children. She said last year there were 39,000 complaints that were filed with DCFS. Sumner said of those cases 24 were false reports.
She said they attempt to gather as much information from the complainant as possible.
“We try to get their name and phone number in case we need to call them back for more information,” Sumner said.
She also said they can remain anonymous. She said they do not do background checks on people who are the focus of a complaint. The only method to vet a complaint is to go to the home and inspect according to Sumner. After the inspection the worker can issue a recommendation that ranges from a viable complaint to no merit.
If the complaint turned out to be bogus, Sumner said they can investigate the complainant to see if it was malicious.
“It is a class B misdemeanor,” said Sumner.
She had no information about how many cases were prosecuted.
A state lawmaker said DCFS is in a tough situation. He said they don’t want to prevent people with legitimate complaints to stop calling the agency.
“(But) I think there’s a very delicate balance here between civil liberties of a homeowner and the interests of trying to protect children who may be in harms way,” said Senator Todd Weiler of Woods Cross.
He said as policy maker, the legislature has to be careful in drawing those lines.
“If we make it too hard for someone who sees something then we may have more children who are left in an abusive situations,” he said. “On the other hand, these things can be abused and people’s lives can be turned upside down and are the subject of an ongoing DCFS investigation.”
He said he needs more information from DCFS and planned to ask the agency for answers to some of his questions.
DCFS provided information about guidelines they follow. The legislature created those guidelines. state law requires an investigation when situations like severe abuse or neglect occur. A review of the statute that DCFS provided did not list having a sex offender in the home with children as a reason for a home inspection.
She can’t talk specifically about Cleveland’s case but said in general, a sex offender in the home is not under their guidelines as outlined by the law.
For Cleveland who is still awaiting the final report from DCFS, the whole experience is unsettling.
“It’s terrifying to think they could come to your home and take your children,” Cleveland said. “And that one of your neighbors can say things about you, pickup the phone and a government agency can come to your home and take your children.”