- The Washington Times - Monday, April 26, 2010

NEW YORK | Combating child abuse is a cause with universal support. Yet a push to create a national database of abusers, as authorized by Congress in 2006, is barely progressing as serious flaws come to light in the state-level registries that would be the basis for a national list.

In North Carolina, an appeals court ruled last month that the registry there is unconstitutional because suspected abusers had no chance to defend themselves before being listed.

In New York, a class-action settlement is taking effect on behalf of thousands of people who were improperly denied the chance for a hearing to get removed from the state registry.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case this fall arising from the plight of a California couple whose names remain on that state’s registry years after they were cleared of an abuse accusation made by their rebellious teenage daughter.

“Nobody wants to be seen as soft on child abuse and that’s gotten us where we are,” said Carolyn Kubitschek, a New York lawyer who has waged several court battles over the registries. “In the state of New York, it is still almost impossible to get off the list.”

More than 40 states have the abuse registries, which are distinct from the better-known registries of convicted sex offenders that every state makes publicly available on the Internet. The abuse lists aren’t accessible to the public but are used by day care centers, schools, adoption agencies and other entities to screen people who want to adopt, be foster parents or get a job working with children.

Even critics of the registries say they can serve a vital purpose in barring perpetrators of serious abuse from roles where they would interact routinely with children. It’s the process underlying many of the registries that has come into question and their potential to entangle innocent people as well as wrongdoers.

A person doesn’t have to be convicted or charged with a crime to get listed. Under the general practice in most states, entries are based on a child protection investigator’s assertion that the person committed an act of abuse or neglect; hearings or appeals, if granted at all, often come long after the name is entered.

“Anybody can call a child abuse hot line and report abuse — anybody, including your ex-spouse who hates you, your landlord who’s trying to evict you,” Ms. Kubitschek said.

By law, she said, child protection services must investigate each call and their subsequent reports can lead to a person’s placement on an abuse registry before they are notified or allowed to defend themselves.

The problems with due process were highlighted last year in an interim report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has been directed by Congress to assess the feasibility of a national child abuse registry.

“Strong due process protections could necessitate significant changes to CPS investigation processes in some states that could be costly to implement and may discourage participation in a national registry,” the HHS report said.

The report also questioned whether a national registry might be plagued by “false positives” affecting innocent people sharing a name with a perpetrator.

The potential problems will be assessed by a new HHS-commissioned study over the next two years, examining the state registries, gauging the states’ interest in participating in a national registry, and trying to determine whether one is indeed needed.

“Would a national registry in fact be useful to states?” said Barbara Broman, an HHS official who oversaw preparation of the interim report. “We do not know the answer to that question.”

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