In Tennessee, A Child Abuse Registry Without A Crime
Aug. 31, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Tennessee, living up to its moniker of “The Volunteer State,” has bounded down the path of naming and shaming parenting done “wrong.” It’s chosen to publish the Department of Children’s Services internal “indication” registry online, available to all who have internet access.
Other states have registries of those who have been convicted of child abuse or neglect, but Tennessee has done one better with a registry showing those who are potentially guilty of abuse or neglect lumped in with those who have been found guilty in a court of law.
Fellow Fault Lines contributors, Jeff Gamso and Ken Womble, in analyzing registries’ less than savory unintended consequences, have illustrated their great glories, provided one has a particular fondness for Kafka. But the overwhelming climate of fear surrounding children and parenting has reached new levels of ridiculousness in Tennessee.
DCS said the department is making the move after discovering a law that dates back to 1987.
It requires state agencies to share substantiated abusers with the health department. DCS has long maintained its own database, we’ve maintained our own internal registry and we have 154,000 names, said Rob Johnson with DCS out of Nashville.
Never you mind the fact that the law in question is part of regulations dealing with maintenance of health care facilities and has nothing whatsoever to do with the juvenile justice system. As long as we’re trying our hardest to make sure the world knows the identities of people who could potentially abuse “vulnerable” individuals, as defined under this part of the Tennessee Code as “anyone under eighteen years of age,” it’s perfectly acceptable to stampede in and put people with no criminal history in a position of irreparable harm to their reputation.
How very nice of these well-meaning social workers, with no particular grasp of law, to keep a list internally and then tirelessly search to find a reason to put names in the public eye of those who haven’t even been charged with an offense. After all, where there’s smoke there’s fire, right?
Not so. The indication registry, according to DCS administrative regulations, allows people to be “substantiated” for abuse or neglect solely through an internal investigation of those whose names come across their radar. It’s part of the investigative process required by Child Protective Services. If they find there’s a possibility a person abuses or neglects a child, they indicate whether a finding is “substantiated” or “not substantiated.” It may well be a perfectly reasonable exercise for internal purpose, but it was never crafted for public dissemination.
It’s an administrative process where an agency tasked with protecting children decides whether to leave a family intact or remove the children and place the matter before the courts. Yet, the Department of Children’s Services sees no problem in letting the public know that the nice guy next door is being investigated for abuse or neglect before court proceedings begin. Or even if they are never sought.
“Substantiated” parties may get no chance to present evidence in their defense or see the person making the accusation. Instead, as soon as the Department of Children’s Services letter comes to the door telling a person they’ve been indicated as a potential perpetrator of child abuse, they can know their name stands besides those who actually were found by a court to have abused children on a convenient platform available to anyone who knows how to use Google.
Objections to this overreach are waved off by the Department’s officials because parties “have the right to a file review, they have the right before a hearing by an administrative law judge and if they wish to appeal those findings to a chancery court they can do so.” That statement fails to mention that the file review is conducted by a Department of Children’s Services employee, without any opportunity for aggrieved individuals to present evidence or mount a defense before the department employee reaches his conclusion and puts him on the list. You can grieve later, after the damage is done.
It’s an internal administrative procedure. It also conveniently leaves out the administrative law judge will only hear your case if you’re currently working with children or in some way have access to children. Appealing the finding of the administrative law judge to chancery court only occurs after you’ve exhausted all the other options first.
At every stage, the burden of proof is preponderance of the evidence, which is lower than the “clear and convincing” burden used in Tennessee’s Juvenile Court system. It’s not a hard burden to reach.
It’s important to protect children who are abused or neglected. That’s not in dispute. What’s ridiculous is that we criminalize a child walking down the street absent armed guards and a drone. What’s in dispute is our desire to incarcerate parents who leave their child in a car for a few minutes with the car running and child in full view. What’s nuts is arresting parents who don’t keep a camera on their children to ensure school attendance from bell to bell .
Tennessee’s creation of its special “pre-crime” super registry will cost people jobs, apartment and friends. It will prevent career choices from ever occurring. It will be used by greedy parties with an axe to grind to split families and traumatize children. It will damage reputations and destroy lives. But because it’s “for the children,” the state deems the potential cost to the accused to be far outweighed by the public’s right to know and shame someone.
Of course we want to protect our children. No one wants to see a child harmed. But even that well-intended goal has it’s limits, such as needlessly ruining the life of someone who has yet to be found to have actually done anything harmful by smearing him in an online registry.
Main image via WVLT