Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts #9: Standardized Registry of Maltreatment Reports

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who have completed congressional internships.

The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Tonisha Hora, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

The Proposal

Hora calls on Congress to move toward national standards for state child abuse and neglect registries, and a national aggregation of records from those registries.

Hora’s plan would be for new minimum standards that include at least two following provisions. First, the second report for a child, and any subsequent one, must trigger a screening-in and an investigation. Second, records of all reports should be maintained for no fewer than 25 years, “or even indefinitely.”

The Argument

Tanisha Hora, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Stout

Too often, Hora argues, a child is left in an abusive or neglectful household because a report is screened out or because investigators lacked the context that would be provided by a knowledge of past reports. Hora cites recent research finding that a call to child protective services is the best-known predictor of risk of injury or death.

This would not be the case if systems were required to investigate after a second report, Hora argues. And abusive or neglectful adults would not be able to escape past history if there were a way to nationally aggregate information from state registries.

“It is unacceptable to let even one more child fall through the cracks because we neglected to create a system where we can readily have information available that will help save lives,” Hora wrote in conclusion of her proposals.

In Her Own Words

Hora and her twin sister were removed from an abusive kinship placement after 10 years.

“Child Protective Services often visited our home, sometimes multiple times a year, after they received reports from neighbors and teachers … We were aware of how the system continued to fail us by never removing us from our home when they should have. To us, the signs were obvious, yet CPS workers always left us there. The abuse worsened after every CPS visit.”

The Chronicle‘s Take

One thing we recall, from a research project of many moons ago, is that state child abuse and neglect registries vary wildly in how they are built and implemented. New York’s basically included anyone who had ever been accused and it was virtually impossible to get taken off it. Utah only included substantiated investigations of serious abuse or neglect and had a very formal process for appeal and expungement from its registry.

It is hard to imagine Congress setting any mandates on states in regard to how child welfare systems respond to reports. In a good number of states, that decision making and policy comes from counties, or regional child welfare outposts. And tying a national standard for response to places as disparate as Alaska, California and Rhode Island is hard to justify. It’s also not clear what funds those standards would be tied to, since very little federal money comes to states to work on prevention and investigation of maltreatment.

That said, the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF) proposed a $1 billion “surge” in federal dollars to help with maltreatment prevention. CECANF’s report suggests that new funds should be “contingent upon the state having a fatality prevention plan in place and approved by HHS to fundamentally reform the way the child welfare system is designed and delivered.”

Were there to be traction for such a surge, Congress might make states stipulate that their plan includes an automatic investigation after a certain number of reports.

As far as a regulated network between the state registries and the feds, the precedent there would be the national sex offender registry guidelines established under the Adam Walsh Act. The act set up a national registry that would draw from state registries. The act also set up a minimum threshold of offenses for which people must be included on the registry, and invited states to go further if they preferred. So it was a mix of state discretion and federal minimums.

The Walsh Act also attached a three-tier system for when offenders could be eligible to have their names removed from the registry (well, two tiers; the third tier was “never.”)

But there is a big difference between the concept of a sex offender registry and the abuse/neglect registry. The former includes people who were convicted of a crime; the latter can be a mix of the convicted, the substantiated and the accused.

Hora smartly proposes a federal commission to discuss how her construct would protect the privacy of all of the people involved. That is the start, but you’d also have to figure out a very careful line to draw on how information on such a registry would be used. Just for maltreatment investigations? On background checks for jobs and volunteer positions? Could law enforcement access it in relation to non-maltreatment investigations?

Another question to be answered is who should be exposed to inclusion on this list? Is it any report of any adult, or just relative and foster caregivers? Should minors who have been reported for abuse of other minors be included?

And with all of that, certainly the threshold must be that people on registries who are not convicted of a crime must be held harmless from consequences beyond the interests of child protection.

Hora is correct that there is value in the retention of a full and clear picture of reports. In her case, it is a failure of mission if investigators continued to visit the home without knowledge of the previous investigators who did so.

It would be difficult for Congress to mandate state and local response to reports, and it isn’t clear to us that a trigger at the second report is the right standard. But it’s not unreasonable to establish a federal incentive for states willing to meet certain response standards and data collection.

Click here to read the full report, including all of the FYI proposals.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1182 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.