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Updated: Tuesday, 13 Nov 2012, 6:22 AM EST
Published : Monday, 12 Nov 2012, 11:09 PM EST
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - A little-known list can cause big problems for parents across Michigan. If you land on it, it could cost you your job, your reputation and your ability to parent your kids.
It's called the Child Abuse and Neglect Central Registry, and the State of Michigan can put you on it for life without a judge's ruling.
"When I found out I was on the Central Registry, I started having anxiety attacks," Beth Berryhill told Target 8.
Berryhill said she was first placed on the state's Child Abuse and Neglect Central Registry in 1984. She never hit her children, but instead says she was targeted by neighbors who didn't approve of her parenting and overzealous case workers who equated poverty with neglect.
"Because I couldn't buy a loaf of bread or something like that to feed my kids," Berryhill recalled. "I needed help. That doesn't make me neglectful, that just means I need a little help."
Family law attorney Elizabeth Warner represents four other parents in Kent, Calhoun and Jackson counties who are all part of a federal suit against the State of Michigan.
"For the life of me I can't understand why Michigan wants to rely on a registry that's so unreliable," said Warner.
Warner said the list violates constitutional rights because people are put on it without having a day in court. She calls the registry a "blacklist" of people unfairly labeled as child abusers.
"It's the most massive civil rights violation in Michigan," Warner said. "It affects hundreds of thousands of people, and if you take that out, it affects their families for all generations because once you're on the registry, you're on for life."
Department of Human Services officials defend the registry as a useful tool available to businesses, schools and daycare centers to screen job applicants.
"It allows us to do that background check to ensure that Michigan's children are not put under the care and supervision of individuals who have a substantiated history of abuse and neglect," said Steve Yager of DHS.
The agency says at any time up to 300,000 people are on the registry. Unlike the Michigan Sex Offender Registry, the Central Registry is not open to the public.
Critics say the Central Registry is too subjective, and that it's easy to get on but almost impossible to get off. Yager said he doesn't think that's accurate.
"I would refer to the investigation process," said Yager. "It is not a process we take lightly. We take it very seriously."
DHS says in each case, its investigators base their findings on evidence and a risk assessment.
The law governing the registry allows for removal from the list if there is an error. Individuals on the list can request a hearing and do not need an attorney.
It's a process those affected say is easier said than done.
"It's very difficult to get off of it because the system removal procedures are unfair and slow," said Warner.
Placement on the registry wasn't always be permanent. Initially, it lasted a maximum of 15 years. But by 1999, that provision was considered a loophole. Expired cases, like Beth Berryhill's, were re-established.
Berryhill won a long battle to get off the list, but not before losing guardianship of her grandkids in the process. She said her case should be seen as a warning.
"All it takes is a neighbor to be mad at you to make a referral and they may not come to your house. There is a list of these and they never came to my house," she said.
The federal lawsuit is set to be heard next month. DHS says it's not opposed to reforms, but any action is on hold now that the agency is facing litigation.
Michigan DHS on the Child Abuse and Neglect Central Registry