ONE summer day, Joy Brown looked around and panicked: Her five-year-old son, Jamie, had slipped out of the house. An hour later, mother and child were reunited, no harm done.
Her innocent mistake could have ended in disaster. She'll accept that. But Mrs. Brown will not -- now or ever -- accept the state's conclusion: She belongs on a list of child abusers.
She has waged a dogged campaign to clear her name and change the rules that lump her with those who habitually abuse or neglect their kids. Now, after more than 1-1/2 years of lobbying, some state legislators are saying she may be right, and it's time to change the law.
''I am not an abusive parent. ... I'm just a regular ordinary mom who takes good care of her kids,'' Mrs. Brown says, her voice husky with indignation.
The state of Iowa is unmoved. Yes, officials said in a letter, Mrs. Brown is ''an exemplary parent'' to Jamie, but yes, indeed, she also belongs on its child-abuse registry.
''Certainly from that standpoint of this incident, that child clearly was in danger,'' says Eric Sage, head of the support and protective services bureau at the Iowa Department of Human Services.
This story offers a striking example of the tough balancing act faced by many embattled child-welfare systems as they struggle with increasing numbers of troubled kids, record levels of abuse complaints, and a public clamoring for fast action.
The result? Hard-line measures, expanded definitions of child abuse and mandatory-reporting laws that leave little room for discretion when handling complex family issues.
''As you take out human judgment in the system, we're going to end up with situations like Joy Brown,'' says John Holtkamp, director of the Iowa chapter of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse. ''Not everyone has to be labeled.''
Other experts say single episodes should not be exaggerated, but records help establish patterns.
''We think it's important for police to keep records they don't expunge,'' says Donald Bross, a child-welfare expert and director of education at the Kempe National Center, part of the University of Colorado.
Forty states have child-abuse registries, with varying approaches. In Iowa, a person is placed on the confidential list for 10 years if there's evidence of abuse, neglect, or denial of critical care. Mr. Sage notes, ''You must list the first time or you'll never find out if there's a second time.'' Few of those named ''rise to the level of court action'' and fewer than 1 percent on the list complain, he says.