Next week in the House Human Resources committee we’ll likely be voting on House Study Bill 510: An Act Related to Child Abuse Reports and Disposition Data . The goal of the bill is to address some concerns with the Iowa Department of Human Service (DHS) Central Child Abuse Registry — it’s a good start, but I’m not sure the proposed changes really change much, and the bill is missing some changes that I believe should be included.
First off, What is the DHS Central Abuse Registry? It’s not the Iowa Sex Offender Registry –you’re placed on the Sex Offender Registry because you’ve been convicted of a crime that qualifies as a sex offense. You’re placed on the Central Abuse Registry because someone makes an allegation that you’ve abused/neglected a child in your care, and DHS determines, after an investigation, that the allegation was “founded” — that you did something (or failed to do something) to the child that qualifies as abuse or neglect, and that what you did was not minor, isolated, or unlikely to recur. That’s the short version; here’s a link to IA Code section Section.232.71D, which is the statute that spells out the process in detail. Kind of. And here is a really good outline of the whole extremely complicated process (thanks, Drake!).
What constitutes child abuse/neglect? There is a wide range of conduct that can result in placement on the Central Registry — everything from sexually abusing a child, to beating a child, to giving a child drugs, to using drugs while a child is in the house, to inappropriate corporal punishment, to leaving a child home alone while you pick up some groceries (here is DHS’s summary of what will land you on the Central Registry ) Under Iowa law everyone is placed on the Central Registry for ten years, but many states vary the length of placement based on the nature and/or severity of the behavior, and I think this makes sense. While HSB 510 doesn’t propose such a drastic change, and realistically the legislature won’t go along with an amendment requiring such a drastic change this session, I am going to try to work with DHS and other legislators to accomplish this change in the coming term.
What are the consequences of being placed on the DHS Central Abuse Registry? For the ten years that you remain on the Central Registry, it will be difficult if not impossible to find employment in any field that might put you in a position where you would be supervising children or have access to children w/out other adults around (daycares, schools, hospitals, libraries, etc — I had a client who couldn’t get a job at McDonalds because they have the kiddie room). You won’t be able to adopt a child, or act as a foster parent, or a Girl/Boy Scout troop leader, or a Class Parent, or an assistant coach, or help out on school trips. Obviously, if you’re involved in any type of custody dispute, placement on the Central Registry will be a big strike against you. Note that unlike the Sex Offender Registry, the Abuse/Neglect Registry isn’t available to the general public — but lots of agencies/potential employers/people can access the info without your permission, and anyone can access it with your permission if you sign this form.
The Central Registry is an important tool to protect children, and I assume that the majority of the approximately 60,000 people currently on the Registry belong on the Registry. However, there is a general agreement that many of the folks on the Registry shouldn’t be on it, either because they didn’t belong there in the first place, or because they fully cooperated with DHS and/or the Juvenile Court to successfully address the problems that put them on the Registry and no longer pose a risk to anyone.
Problems w/Appeal Process: If a person is placed on the Central Registry by DHS, s/he can appeal the determination that the allegation of abuse/neglect was founded. An administrative law judge (ALJ) conducts a “contested case hearing” by phone, and makes “finding of facts” — normally either that there is probable cause to believe the abuse/neglect was founded, or there isn’t — and issues a “proposed ruling” — normally either that the person stays on the Central Registry, or is removed. If neither side appeals, then after ten days this proposed ruling becomes the actual ruling, one way or the other. But if either side appeals, then the case is reviewed by the Department of Human Services’ Director (currently Charles Palmer), who can either affirm or overrule the ALJ’s proposed ruling.
The problem is that this process takes a looong time. If Joe appeals DHS’s decision to place him on the Central Registry, it is often several months before the contested case hearing takes place, and then a few more weeks until the ALJ issues the proposed ruling. At which point, even if the ALJ makes a finding of fact that there is NOT probable cause to believe that Joe did whatever it is that DHS says he did — i.e., if Joe wins — assuming DHS appeals the ALJ’s ruling, Joe stays on the Central Registry for several more months, until the DHS Director either affirms or reverses the ALJ.
This needs to change — once a trained, impartial judge has listened to the witnesses’ testimony and reviewed the written documents submitted by both sides, and has made a finding that this evidence doesn’t support placement on the Central Registry, the person should be removed from the Central Registry unless/until the DHS Director overrules the ALJ. Period. Unless we’re taking the position that the ALJs are totally incompetent to make these determinations, in which case what’s the point of letting them handle the contested case hearings in the first place? HSB 510 doesn’t include language making this change, and that’s a problem — but there will be an amendment filed, and assuming everyone understands the concepts of fairness and due process, the amendment should pass.
So what changes DOES HSB 510 make? The big thing it does is create a provision that gives DHS discretion to remove people from the Central Registry after five years. Putting into place a mechanism to remove people from the list if they no longer pose a risk to children is a great idea, but the language in the bill needs serious work. The bill doesn’t require that the (60,000) people on the list be given any notification of the fact that they can request a review, it doesn’t indicate who will be doing the review (the initial investigator?his/her supervisor?an administrative law judge? the DHS Director?), and it doesn’t set up any kind of appeal process (because the way the bill is written, whether DHS even considers a request for a review, much less grants it, would be totally up to some unknown entity at DHS –so since there’s no right to a review, there’s no right to an appeal from the review). Plus it’s unclear what would constitute good cause for early removal from the Registry — DHS is supposed to consider the nature/severity of the abuse, the risk of recidivism, the time elapsed since the abuse, and “other relevant factors” but who is going to decide what that means, exactly?
The bill leaves this all up to DHS, requiring DHS to “adopt rules to implement” this provision, and I know that DHS has concerns about the lack of guidance the legislation provides them with, and concerns about the lack of an appeal process … so maybe their rules will address these problems. We can hope.
The other thing the bill does is require DHS to look into the possibility of implementing a “differential response plan” at the time of the initial abuse/neglect allegation. Currently DHS has to do an official investigation whenever an allegation is made; the idea is that perhaps it would make more sense to investigate some types of allegations in a more “unofficial” manner, so that the placement issue never comes up. Not sure exactly what that means or what such a plan will look like, but I’m open to any ideas that will help the whole system work more efficiently/fairly while continuing to protect Iowa’s children.
What do you think about the DHS Abuse Registry? If you’ve been involved in the process, did it work for you? Were you treated decently by the system? Do you have any suggestions on how to make the system better, or specifically on how to make HSB 510 a better bill? Let me know, and I will definitely pass your comments/concerns on to the House Human Resource Committee prior to our upcoming vote on HSB 510.