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Lawmakers debate child abuse allegation issue

All Debbie Yates wants is a little fairness.

After being falsely accused of child abuse, the Branford mother of three said she had no recourse against either her accusers or state child abuse workers.

That has to change, she told state senators at a justice committee meeting Tuesday.

"I'm a victim of the system," said Yates, whose family is reeling from the false allegations two years ago.

A Senate justice committee voted 7-2 Tuesday to change the system as lawmakers debated the issue of child abuse investigations for a third consecutive year.

On one side are parents such as Yates, who say state social workers destroy families by relentlessly pursuing frivolous allegations.

On the other side are child advocates, who say social workers need the freedom to make the tough calls.

Caught in the middle: Florida's children.

This year's bill, sponsored as in years past by Sen. John Ostalkiewicz, R-Windermere, would place criminal penalties on Department of Children and Families workers who wrongfully remove children from homes.

It also would require a court order to remove children from a home except in case of imminent danger to a child and reveal the identities of those who make false allegations to child abuse hot lines.

Child advocates and social workers worried that the bill would hamper investigations and result in an increase in child abuse.

Linda Radigan, assistant secretary of the office of Family Safety and Protection, said statistics show that false accusations are uncommon. Only 6.6 percent of the 10,616 children placed in emergency shelter last year showed no signs of abuse, she said.

"Most of the families we're dealing with are desperate for help . . . and they want help," Radigan said.

But Ostalkiewicz said he doubted Radigan's numbers. He produced a letter that he said shows that state social workers had been ordered not to speak to him.

"The amount of abuse you seeing here is way, way overstated," Ostalkiewicz said.