Lawmakers Respond to a Mother’s Mission

LA Times syndicate article, sunday, september 26th, 1999

melissa healy

Mary Beth Phillips is the mother of a 16-year-old daughter named Elizabeth and state-run child-protection program called TrustLine. Her progeny are linked by tragedy and triumph–and by a discredited nanny named Colette Andrews.


When Elizabeth Valentine Phillips was 6 months old, her mother returned to her Oakland home from a graduate class in neuropsychology to horrifying news: The baby, left with Andrews for an hour and a half, had been rushed to a hospital comatose and convulsing–the victim of violent shaking by her caregiver. Both her retinas were detached by the abuse. Elizabeth survived her ordeal to become a gifted student, songwriter and champion of children’s causes. But she was blinded for life.

Three years after Elizabeth lay near death from her injuries, Andrews was convicted of felony child abuse. She was fined $100, required to perform 2,000 hours of community service and put on five years’ probation. The judge ignored entreaties from the Phillips family and from Alameda County Dist. Atty. Robert Platt to bar Andrews from working with children again. For a time, at least, the convicted child abuser worked again as a nanny for other families.

So Mary Beth Phillips, then a 30-year-old mother juggling a graduate internship, a doctoral dissertation, a disabled child and a newborn, began a campaign to spare other parents the pain she had experienced. “I was clearly driven,” she said. Descending on Sacramento, she urged lawmakers to create a registry of caregivers whose names and fingerprints would be screened for criminal pasts or histories of abuse. Parents could check the registry before hiring a nanny.

In the years since TrustLine became a reality in 1993, the state has denied its stamp of approval to 3,981 prospective caregivers whose pasts are tainted with convictions of serious criminal misconduct–including murder and sexual assault–or credible allegations of child abuse or endangerment. Most of the caregivers who seek inclusion on the state-certified registry–an average of 2,000 a month–do so because it is required by government programs that pay child-care subsidies to low-income families.

Now Phillips and the registry’s administrators want to expand TrustLine’s customer base to middle-income and affluent parents. So far, fewer than 200 caregivers a month submit to the background check on their own initiative or at the urging of parents who want to employ them. In an effort to encourage parents to ask job-seeking nannies if they have been approved by TrustLine, the program’s administrators have launched a statewide campaign to increase public awareness. They are pressing pamphlets on new parents as they leave maternity wards, posting signs in pediatricians’ offices and advertising on supermarket bags.

A Push to Take Program Nationwide

And, at a time when few Californians know about TrustLine, Phillips also wants to take the program national. Congress in recent years has taken steps to make it easier for states to institute criminal background checks on caregivers. But lawmakers have shied away from debating a national registry–a far more ambitious goal.

To bring TrustLine to life in California, Phillips and her allies triumphed over civil libertarians, skeptical lawmakers and wary bureaucrats. If a national registry of caregivers is ever to take shape, Phillips warns, proponents will have to prevail over the same critics. Chris Hansen, an attorney with the ACLU’s national office in New York, acknowledged that criminal background checks for any prospective employees raise hackles among civil rights activists. “You always have to be somewhat uncomfortable about the notion that we have to investigate everyone in order to catch one bad apple,” said Hansen, who added that those turned away from registries often are given insufficient information and recourse.

To such objections, one can add a more intractable obstacle: balky criminal-records computers that cannot share information from state to state. Phillips keeps pressing, however. “We need someone like [software mogul] Bill Gates, with lots of money, lots of energy and lots of computer resources, to figure out how states can talk to each other. . . . It’s not impossible. It takes will and, more fundamentally, it takes collaboration between departments within and between states that have never worked together before.” Honored last year at the White House for her work on TrustLine, Phillips has pinned her hopes on First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, with whom she has discussed the program at length. If Mrs. Clinton were to win a Senate seat in New York, Phillips believes that she would have the clout and the commitment to rally the political will and find the funds for a national registry of caregivers.

But Phillips also knows that if the TrustLine model is to take hold elsewhere, it will be because of parents like her. No politician, Phillips said, has the passion–or effectiveness–for the job that parents of abused children do. “I think, truly, if Elizabeth had come through OK, I never would have gone to Sacramento” to fight for the program, Phillips said. “I wouldn’t have had that angst, that agony.”

One of Phillips’ earliest allies in fighting for TrustLine was Cheri Robertson of Temecula, Calif., whose son, Bryan, was shaken violently by a caregiver at the age of 10 months. In the days before Phillips was to appear before a state legislative committee, she called Robertson for support. The next day, with her baby on her hip, Robertson flew to Sacramento to testify alongside Phillips. As they struggled to bring TrustLine to life, Robertson coordinated visits and letters from parents of babies abused by their caregivers, while Phillips talked to legislators.

Mobilizing an Army of Angry Parents

Working both sides of the Legislature helped, Phillips said. The addition of an appeals process for rejected applicants helped to quell early opposition from Democrats, who raised concerns about the rights of those rejected by the registry. Republicans were also skeptical, fearing that TrustLine would create an unwieldy bureaucracy. As legislation setting up TrustLine neared a crucial first vote in 1986, Phillips recalled, the state’s Republican caucus urged its members to vote against the bill, a move that mobilized a small army of angry parents and established a pattern of lobbying that the group would use again and again.

“We were going door-to-door through the Legislature, marching into these offices,” Phillips remembered. “We just walked up to the person in the office who had a picture of a kid on his or her desk. And we’d say: ‘Here’s what we’re trying to do, and your guy is not supporting it. Can you drag him out so we can talk to him?’ And they did! It was cool!”

Today, TrustLine is a state-funded program touted on supermarket bags across California. Daughter Elizabeth Phillips is soon to be the keynote speaker at a statewide conference on child abuse prevention. Her mother falls into unaccustomed silence when she ponders whether TrustLine or her daughter is the greater miracle.

“Just an amazing journey,” she said.

Copyright Los Angeles Times, 2002. Reprinted with permission.