The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees many rights for citizens, including due process of law when a proceeding could deny a person “life, liberty, or property.” While somewhat indefinite, the term suggests a fundamental principle of fairness in all legal matters, especially with regard to procedure. So when attorney David Veazey saw that a client was being denied what he believed was his right to a hearing before the Department of Children’s Services, he pursued rectification.
The client was a teen accused of sexually abusing children. Although Veazey had successfully defended the young man against the criminal charges in Juvenile Court, the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) had sent the boy a letter in 2012 informing him that the agency had placed him on its “indicated list,” which noted the abuse.
“Typically, the DCS receives a call on their hotline about someone abusing or neglecting a child, and they investigate. When they find out there are issues, they have a few options,” Veazey says. “They can point the family to services designed to help them, they can try to convince the family to temporarily place the child with a relative, or, if there’s no alternative, they can take the child into custody.”
DCS can also place someone on the “indicated list,” which means someone has indicated that they perpetrated abuse or neglect of a child. This happens without any discussion with the alleged perpetrator. “They don’t find out about it until they get a letter saying they’ve been identified as a person who has committed child abuse or neglect,” Veazey says.
When Veazey read the letter, he told his client he would take care of the matter. To his legally trained mind, it was a matter of due process: DCS would hear the facts and remove his client from the list. But trying to clear his client’s name wound up being anything but easy.
Veazey did what the letter said to do and requested a file review. DCS did the review, but upheld its ruling. When Veazey asked for a hearing, he was denied. This surprised him. “We learn in law school that if the state is taking action against you, you have a Fifth Amendment right to due process,” he says. “But we weren’t going to get a hearing.”
Veazey reached out to attorneys across Tennessee, and found out this was not unusual. “The only time a person would get a hearing is if they were working at a daycare or a school, and were about to lose their job,” Veazey says. “But if you simply want to have your name cleared, you don’t get a hearing.”
Veazey was perplexed but not dissuaded, and appealed the matter to Hamilton County Chancery Court. Although Veazey, a solo practitioner with no support staff, was going up against a state agency and all of its resources, he was able to convince Chancellor Frank Brown that his client had a constitutional right to a hearing.
Despite this small victory, the case stalled for several months. Worse, Veazey still didn’t know the nature of the accusations against his client.
Meanwhile, Veazey was getting referrals from other attorneys who had heard he was having some success in this area. Veazey tried to get some of these cases settled by convincing DCS to reverse their ruling, but those requests also suffered delays.
Although things finally got rolling again when a new assistant attorney general was assigned to his cases, Veazey gained little new ground, as a new chancellor had been elected, and DCS took that opportunity to refine their legal strategies.
Their legal argument was straightforward, Veazey says. Due process could not be invoked because a person who was not working in a daycare or school would not face the loss of life, liberty, or property. What’s more, when DCS doesn’t offer to give someone a hearing, by their own rules, they have to keep their inclusion on the list confidential.
But Veazey disagreed, and claimed there was a deprivation of liberty interest. “If you ever want to work for a daycare or school, you have to fill out the mandatory disclosure form. One of the questions on the form asks if you have ever been indicated,” Veazey says. “At the top of the form, it says if you lie on the form, you’re subject to prosecution. So, if you lie and say no, you’re subject to prosecution, and if you say yes, then you won’t get the job.”
In time, however, the agency relented, and agreed to do hearings on the additional cases, too. “This kept them from ending up with a bad precedent,” Veazey says, “and it gives them leverage on a case-by-case basis.”
Veazey attended his first hearing a month ago. A few weeks later – and around three years after his first indicated client came to him – he got a letter from the DCS informing him that they had reversed their decision and removed his client from the indicated list.
Veazey was exhilarated. At the same time, he knows there’s still work to be done, as there’s no controlling precedent he and other attorneys can point to when they have clients who are placed on the indicated list. “You have to do it from scratch each time,” he says.
Because of this, the process can be costly to clients. With that in mind, Veazey has advised some of his clients to let the matter go, as the indicated list is confidential. “Some of my clients were retired,” he said. “But they were adamant they didn’t do anything wrong, and they wanted their name cleared.”
Currently, Veazey has had five clients who were placed on the indicated list. DCS reversed their decision on three of them and is waiting for hearings to be scheduled for the other two.
Veazey remains hopeful that there will someday be a precedent, although he’s concerned about a bad precedent being established. “If someone goes to the Court of Appeals and gets a bad decision, that will set up a bad precedent,” he says. “They tell us in law school that bad facts made bad laws.”
But that won’t stop Veazey, whose law career has been guided by a desire to help people who don’t have a voice. “You grow up in America believing you have access to the courts if you’ve been wronged, so when someone keeps you from being heard, that’s wrong on a fundamental level,” he says. “All you can do is fight it, and hope you make a difference.”