October 12, 2016

Advocacy Groups: Gaps in Child-Abuse Registries Endanger Children

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Child and other advocates are criticizing gaps in Oklahoma’s child-abuse registry, saying they prevent thousands of teachers, nonprofit volunteers and others who work with children from being screened for a history of child abuse.

A coalition of groups is calling for legislators to close the gaps.

Like all other states, Oklahoma maintains a list of names of those who have committed child abuse or neglect.

But lawmakers were told during a legislative hearing Tuesday that Oklahoma has some of the strictest confidentiality laws in the country for deciding who can access that data.

One of the state’s two child-abuse registries is limited to certain cases, such as criminal convictions or incidents at licensed child-care centers.

The other shows substantiated claims of child abuse or neglect, as determined by Department of Human Services case workers. However, it can only be publicly accessed through a court order except in a few specific circumstances, such as checks on prospective foster or adoptive parents.

Several representatives of groups that educate or deal with children said the inability to search the databases makes it difficult, or even impossible, to ensure their employees or volunteers don’t have histories of child abuse.

“When you think about the number of people we hire in our education system, chances are that we opened up our doors to people we don’t want to be around our children,” said Tenna Whitsel, director of family community engagement for Tulsa Public Schools.

Whitsel said teachers, support staff and volunteers are screened in her district through checks of criminal records, including FBI, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the Oklahoma State Court Network databases. But she said most child-abuse cases don’t rise to the level of a criminal charge.

In Tulsa County, for example, there were 411 cases of abuse or neglect cases filed in juvenile court last year, but only 11 percent of those were were criminally prosecuted.

Sarah McAmis, Tulsa County assistant district attorney, said cases won’t reach her desk unless law enforcement agencies are involved. And she said unless there is a “documented injury” or other clear evidence, it is difficult to prosecute these cases.

“Although ultimately we are not able to end up with a felony conviction, I don’t think any of us would say it’s appropriate that they serve in any capacity around children,” she said.

Maura Wilson-Guten, executive director of Tulsa Court Appointed Special Advocates, which trains volunteers to advocate for abused and neglected children in the court system, said this has even affected her group.

Wilson-Guten said she was “horrified” in 2011 when her group discovered that a potential volunteer who had passed its normal screening checks was a former foster parent with a history of “inappropriate behavior.” She did not recall the specifics.

“If he was on the list and we could’ve searched it, we would’ve known right away,” she said. “It just shows that all of our organizations are touched by this, whether we care to admit it or not.”

Looking to Arkansas

Wilson-Guten also heads the Child Protection Coalition, composed of 26 groups from around the state.

It is urging Oklahoma to pass legislation similar to an Arkansas law that allows release of child-abuse information to more groups.

For a $10 fee, the law allows employers or volunteer agencies to screen a person if he or she will be working with children, the elderly or individuals with disabilities or mental illness. The state will then tell the organization if the person has a child-abuse report, when the investigation was completed and the type of complaint.

Dennis Robins, manager of the child-abuse registry for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said the system has proven successful.

“Without a centralized registry and an established request process, children can be in danger by being exposed to people with sometimes an extensive history of abuse,” Robins told the panel.

Most other states have similar laws, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services..

Some civil liberties and privacy advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have criticized these polices when individuals were placed on the list without due process or notification.

Robins, however, said all individuals are sent a letter when there is a substantiated report of abuse. He said a 30-day administrative appeal process allows to challenge the finding.

Gaps in Child-Care Registry

Sen. AJ Griffin, R-Guthrie, who requested the study, said she is also concerned with a “gap” in the child-abuse registry used to screen potential licensed child-care workers.

The registry, called Joshua’s List, only contains names of those with a criminal conviction for certain violent crimes or crimes against children, a child-care facility owner who had their license denied or revoked, or someone with a substantiated finding of abuse that occurred while the child was in the care of a child-care facility.

The list doesn’t include names of people who had a substantiated finding while working outside of a licensed child-care facility. That includes unlicensed child-care providers and staff at state-operated facilities.

Also worrisome is that DHS doesn’t screen its workers for substantiated child-abuse findings, Griffin said. Bonnie Clift, assistant general counsel for the agency, confirmed that’s the case at Tuesday’s meeting.

In a statement after the meeting, Griffin didn’t discuss the specifics of any potential legislation to address, but she did call for “immediate” action.

“There are thousands of people who are falling through the cracks, gaining access to children,” she said. “We need to close those gaps.”