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Consider a national registry for child abuse cases

September 3, 2018

As an attorney who has represented foster parents in custody cases, I am seeing a need for a consistent clearinghouse of information for children who have abusive parents living in another state.

Some policy makers advocate for the creation of a national registry for child abuse cases to better create interstate cooperation between child protective services on this issue. The Adam Walsh Act of 2006 calls for the creation of such a database, most specifically to track convicted sexual predators.

However, this Bush era federal statute also called for the creation of a national data base to track incidents of child abuse and neglect. Currently most states, including Texas, maintain a central registry for child abuse cases. Since they are operated at the state level, these databases vary in how they capture and store data. One example is the amount of time used to store unsubstantiated child abuse reports. In the state of Washington, this information is kept for up to six years. Wyoming, however, will remove such cases from their registry after a period of only six months.

There are certain legal concerns that hinder the implementation of a national registry — a lack of due process. Unlike sex offenders, you do not need a legal finding of child abuse or neglect to wind up on any state’s registries. In many of them, your name can be added to the database by the assertion of a child protection investigator. Unfortunately, mistakes can often occur on their reports.

One such mistake occurred in 1990 when a lawyer by the name of Esther Boynton, accidentally splashed her 17-year-old daughter with hot coffee. She only discovered she was on the registry when applying for a volunteer position three years later. It would take two more years of legal procedure to have her name removed.

There is also the issue of false reports. In 1986, Scott Whyte was falsely accused of inflicting child abuse by a vengeful ex-girlfriend. The stockbroker spent almost 20 years living in fear of immediate arrest. It was only in 2007 that Whyte was able to clear his name.

The blame should not lie entirely with the Child Protective Services. Most agents are doing what they feel is best for the children involved in these cases. Unfortunately, the agency is afflicted with heavy workloads, high turnover from stress, inadequate technology, low pay and low morale.

A national registry would greatly ease interstate cooperation in child abuse cases. However, successfully introducing this system will entail certain reforms that require better funding. It is important for our elected officials to invest in these agencies that protect our kids.

Attorney Joe Hoelsche is a partner in the Hoelscher Gebbia PLLC. He and his partners represent families in child custody and support issues.

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