Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

Abusers may slip through registry
System lists victims, but not attackers
Ron Martz - Staff
Monday, May 29, 2000

One of the most pressing needs in Georgia's child welfare system is a computerized registry to track families with histories of abuse and neglect, two recent studies concluded.

Without it, say the GBI and the independent Child Protective Services Task Force, children will continue to be injured or killed because their abusers can escape detection simply by moving across county lines.

And while the state has spent $26.8 million, with another $48 million of state and federal funds budgeted for a new child welfare computer system that will track children, child protective services workers still don't know whether they will be able to track accused and confirmed abusers.

Without names of the abusers, however, a computerized system can't truly protect children, says Don Keenan, an Atlanta attorney who has filed suit against the state on behalf of Terrell Peterson, the 5-year-old Atlanta boy who died in January 1998 after he and his siblings were the subjects of eight reports of neglect and abuse to the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services. The boy's grandmother, aunt and aunt's boyfriend have been charged in his death.

Being able to track child abusers by name, said Keenan, "is the most important element in preventing abuse. With the name of someone who is a known abuser, when a child is abused a second time, the red flags go up and the sirens go off and the doctors can take the monumental steps necessary to protect that child."

At issue is a 1998 state Supreme Court decision that overturned a 1990 law authorizing the registry that made names of alleged abusers available to law enforcement and child welfare workers. The court ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it did not permit those accused of abuse to confront their accusers in an administrative appeal process.

Without a new law, says the state Department of Human Resources, it can't include names of known and suspected abusers in the new system. But in the two years since the court decision, neither DHR, the General Assembly nor the governor's office has made any efforts to get the law revised.

"I am not willing by any stretch of the imagination to believe that it can't be made constitutional," Keenan said. "It can be made constitutional. But you have to work on it. You have to fashion it."

Rep. Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta), chairman of the Children and Youth Committee that addresses child abuse issues, said she does not know why the issue has not been revisited in the past few years. "I don't know why there has been no further action on that. That's something that I need to look into," she said.

The new computerized child welfare system will not be fully operational until at least 2002. The Internet-based system will allow caseworkers to put all their case notes into a computer instead of a paper file so that a complete record can be easily accessible. But, to date, it's unclear how the abuser's name will be displayed in the system and whether the system will be able to track a person's history of alleged abuse.

Larry Singer, an adviser to DHR on development of the system, said the new system will easily link to other systems such as child care, mental health, mental retardation, substance abuse and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to allow officials to better monitor all services families receive.

Sandy Laszlo, director of legal services for DHR, said methods used by other states to include names of abusers in their registries are being studied to see if something similar can be done here. "That's something that we've wrestled with," Laszlo said.

Peter Lee, a DHR spokesman, said it has not been determined what information about abusers will be put into the new system, known as FACETS, for Family and Children Electronic Tracking System.

"We've got to look at what the law says we can and cannot do and what the caseworkers need to protect children before that decision is made," Lee said.

But the fact that other states have registries that permit the listing of abusers and nothing has been done in Georgia for more than two years frustrates child advocates.

"We've been spinning our wheels on this for 10 years," said former state Sen. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur, author of the 1990 legislation creating the registry. "I've given up on the initiative coming from DHR. It's going to have to come from the governor's office," Oliver said.

Joselyn Butler, Gov. Roy Barnes' spokeswoman, said he had talked to DHR about a need for a registry. "It's something we're looking at to see what could be done legislatively next year to make that happen," said Butler.

The state had a system like the one the GBI and the task force have recommended, but since the state Supreme Court ruling, the 10-year-old system has become outdated and of little use to caseworkers trying to track families with histories of abuse.

The original system was set up not only to allow child protective services workers to identify suspected and confirmed abusers, but to collect a variety of abuse and neglect information required by the federal government. Law enforcement and child welfare workers had access to the system.

But lawmakers concerned about the wrongly accused being stigmatized for life set up an elaborate appeals process for anyone who wanted to get their name off the list.

The law prohibited anyone under the age of 14 from being forced to testify against the person they accused of abuse during this process. The Supreme Court cited that particular provision in its ruling overturning the law, saying it violated due process because it did not allow the accused to confront the accuser.

The court said the law's purpose in trying to protect children was "laudable," but that it was "not properly focused."

After the ruling, the state shut down the registry for several months to make necessary changes, according to Becky Jarvis, program consultant for the state Division of Family and Children Services.

Now, said Jarvis, "there is not anything in there that indicates a person has been an abuser. It just shows there is some history (of abuse)" in a family. The names of the accused are contained in a paper record of the case on file in county offices, not in the computer.

According to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, every state has developed some system of maintaining records on child abuse and neglect because of federal reporting requirements. As of Jan. 1, 42 states required by law that a centralized registry be maintained, usually by computer. The other states maintain the records as a matter of administrative policy.

But state requirements for what information goes into those registries, who has access to them, and how they are maintained vary greatly, although most states appear to permit the listing of abusers. Many states also have an appeals process for those who feel their names were put on the registry in error, some similar to the system Georgia's Supreme Court overturned.

Gary Kleblatt, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, said a recent legal challenge to the registry there resulted in the state offering, as of May 1, a hearing to anyone who objected to their name being on the list. The alleged victim does not have to testify, Kleblatt said.

In North Carolina, which operates a county-based child abuse registry, accused abusers can appeal their names being on the list to county child protective services directors, according to Jo Ann Lamm, with the Division of Social Services. The director makes a determination without a hearing.

"But we've had very few cases where we've been asked to remove the name," said Lamm.

And in New Hampshire, which has had prior legal challenges to its central registry, an administrative hearing process is afforded those who want to try to get their names off the list, according to Bernie Bluhm, assistant administrator with the state's child protective services.

Whether the alleged victim testifies is determined on a case-by-case basis, according to Bluhm.

"We take into consideration how traumatizing it would be for the child to testify. But in many of the cases we have there is forensic evidence that substantiates the maltreatment," Bluhm said.

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