NEW YORK -- Combating child abuse is a cause with universal support. Yet a push to create a national database of abusers, as authorized by Congress in 2006, is barely progressing as serious flaws come to light in the state-level registries that would be the basis for a national list.
In North Carolina, an appeals court ruled last month that the registry there is unconstitutional because alleged abusers had no chance to defend themselves before being listed.
In New York, a class-action settlement is taking effect on behalf of thousands of people who were improperly denied the chance for a hearing to get removed from the state registry.
And the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case this fall arising from the plight of a California couple whose names remain on that state's registry years after they were cleared of an abuse allegation made by their rebellious teenage daughter.
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"Nobody wants to be seen as soft on child abuse -- and that's gotten us where we are," said Carolyn Kubitschek, a New York lawyer who has waged several court battles over the registries. "In the state of New York, it is still almost impossible to get off the list."
More than 40 states, including Texas, have the abuse registries, which are distinct from the better-known sex offender registries that every state makes publicly available on the Internet. The abuse lists aren't accessible to the public, but are used by day-care centers, schools, adoption agencies and other entities to screen people who want to adopt, be foster parents or get a job working with children.
Even critics of the registries say they can serve a vital purpose in barring perpetrators of serious abuse from roles where they would interact routinely with children. It's the process underlying many of the registries that has come into question -- and their potential to entangle innocent people as well as wrongdoers.
Under the general practice in most states, entries are based on a child protection investigator's assertion that the person committed an act of abuse or neglect.
"Anybody can call a child abuse hot line and report abuse, anybody, including your ex-spouse who hates you, your landlord who's trying to evict you," Kubitschek said.
The potential problems inherent in setting up a national database will be assessed by a study commissioned by the federal Health and Human Services Department to examine state registries, gauge the states' interest in participating and determine whether one is needed.