Congress authorized a national child abuse registry in 2006 as part of the Adam Walsh Act, named for a Florida boy abducted and killed in 1981. His father, John Walsh, hosts the TV series “America’s Most Wanted.”
Among those urging faster progress toward a national registry is Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, who says such a list would help track child abusers who cross state lines to avoid detection and offend again in the new location.
“It doesn’t make any sense at all that while we try to watch sex offenders like hawks, we let child batterers, who physically batter children, slip through the cracks,” he told a news conference last month.
Howard Davidson of the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law said most people on the state registries are accused of neglect, not battering or other physical abuse.
Mr. Davidson supports use of the registries to screen potential adoptive or foster parents. But he questions whether they’re a suitable tool for employers to vet job applicants because of inconsistencies in the level of proof required to register a name.
A disproportionate number of people on the registries are poor, Mr. Davidson said, decreasing their chances of successfully challenging an unfair inclusion on the list.
The National Child Abuse Coalition, a major player in Washington in advocating on behalf of abused children, is cautious about the proposed national registry.
Tom Birch, the coalition’s legislative counsel, said there are many unanswered questions about the registry’s costs and how it would reconcile differences in the states’ definitions and handling of child maltreatment.
“Rushing ahead to create a national registry is not the way to go at this point,” he said. “It would need to be done right.”
While the abuse registries remain out of the spotlight in most states, there have been some notable recent developments.
California has had a series of cases involving people who were exonerated of abuse allegations yet struggled to get their names off the state’s Child Abuse Central Index.
One such case is scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. Lawyers say it will draw attention to the registry debate even though the issue before the justices involves a dispute over Los Angeles County’s position in the case, not some of the more fundamental issues raised during their nine-year legal battle.
Craig and Wendy Humphries of Valencia, Calif., were arrested in 2001 after their daughter, then 15, accused them of abuse; their younger children were placed in foster care. State courts ruled that the accusation was false, but they remain on the list of 800,000 names.
In 2008, a federal appeals court found the registry system unconstitutional because there’s no way for the innocent to clear their names. The ruling empathized with the Humphries as “living every parent’s nightmare.”