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HRS must correct the terrible injustice it has done

There is no more despicable act of depravity than the rape of a child. It is a crime against which society is increasingly vigilant. Though it may be no more prevalent than before, it is widely perceived as such. No one, trusted icons, teachers or clergy, is above suspicion.

One hesitates to criticize any government agency for doing anything to prevent or punish child rape. Florida's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, however, is in line for criticism. The case of William Bellamy demonstrates that HRS fails to consistently employ professional, objective investigative techniques in response to complaints of child sexual molestation. Haphazard interviews, sloppy background checks and the agency's predisposition to presume guilt have combined to propagate injustice.

Bellamy's case could hardly be more illustrative. Bellamy's foster daughter, who was known to HRS as a liar and a manipulator, accused him of sexually molesting her. From the outset, the girl's story was fraught with inconsistency. Details, times and locations were changed with each telling of her tale. In retrospect, her story is almost laughably transparent.

But HRS investigators never hesitated to believe it. They ignored their own file on the girl and dismissed the inconsistencies of her allegations. Consequently, Bellamy lost his reputation, his job and his savings. He would have lost his freedom as well, if not for the good work of his attorney and the girl's admission that she lied.

Pasco County Sheriff's Deputy Karen May and Dr. Russell Bain, the doctor who erroneously found "diagnostic" proof of sexual abuse, are due a portion of blame for Bellamy's ordeal. But HRS clearly set the tone. It gathered momentum for the case against Bellamy when circumstances dictated otherwise. HRS officials, meanwhile, are arrogantly unresponsive to inquiries about their mistakes. The agency stubbornly refuses to rehire Bellamy, even though a state attorney went as far as to say that it appears Bellamy is not guilty.

Such arrogance exposes taxpayers to expensive liability, undermines the credibility of all child rape cases brought by the agency, and creates real doubt about whether HRS will correct itself to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

HRS should immediately rehire Bellamy. It should have rehired him a month ago. It should not have fired him in the first place, but by refusing to give him back his job the agency fuels lingering suspicions about his integrity. HRS also should follow the state attorney's lead and publicly acknowledge that Bellamy is not a child molester. This might help Bellamy reclaim shreds of his good name.

Public perception is often tantamount to reality. No reasonable person would presume that HRS staffers rise in the morning bent upon the destruction of honest reputations. But there remains a disturbing perception that HRS investigations of child sexual abuse occasionally devolve into inquisitions.

Bellamy's experience, and others like it, reasonably lead to the conclusion that a finger of accusation pointed by a child is sometimes all the proof necessary for HRS to proceed unbridled against the accused, regardless of contrary evidence. In its missionary zeal to capture and catalog pedophiles, HRS appears willing to tolerate mistakes that destroy reputations and rob victims of their liberty. HRS appears willing to sacrifice innocent adults in the name of child protection.

As Bellamy's lawyer, J. Larry Hart, put it, "The bottom line is that each of us is only one good liar away from being where Bill Bellamy found himself."

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