When the Louisiana Department of Child and Family Services finds accusations of child abuse “valid,” the accused person may get notified they’ll be added to a child abuse database. But what if a judge has already ruled in the case – and didn’t find the caregivers culpable?
That’s what happened to the Stricklands, a Gentilly family who shared with WDSU Investigates in October the emotional and financial toll of their fight to protect their name. It came weeks after the state took away their infant son for a week until a judge ordered him back with his parents and criticized the process that led to his removal. Their story prompted a Louisiana state senator to look into the registry appeal process and sponsor legislation that aims to make it easier for caregivers to fight DCFS’ decision to add them to the registry.
“This is just a way to protect the process and the integrity of the process for the good of the children,” Sen. Beth Mizell, a Republican from Franklinton who sponsored the legislation, said.
What’s the child abuse registry?
All states are required to track child abusers, and DCFS runs Louisiana’s database, officially named the State Central Registry. Since 2018, background checks for certain types of jobs, like those at daycares, are run against the registry. It can also block people from volunteering at their children's schools or from fostering or adopting.
“This registry has some serious teeth,” local attorney Tanya Faia said.
Since background checks started to run against the registry, DCFS put some measures in place to let people appeal. The agency previously told WDSU Investigates in a statement it has taken steps to balance child safety with the impact on a person's employability. But Faia, who has represented over a half dozen people in their fight to keep their names off the registry, said the system is flawed.
“There seems to be a fundamental due process issue," Faia said. She reached out to WDSU Investigates after the Strickland’s story struck a familiar chord.
“I don't like making money off of people that through no fault of their own are in the system, and then they're bearing a much higher burden to take themselves out of something that they probably should have never had to be on in the first place,” Faia said.
Faia said DCFS tried to add her teenage client to the registry because she worked at a day care where a bottle warmer accident injured a child, though the teen had nothing to do with the accident.
“Every person who was investigated pursuant to that case, even an 18- year-old girl employee, her first job out of high school, while she's trying to go to college, is now on the registry, unless they can get themselves taken off,” Faia said.
When DCFS flags someone for the registry, they're mailed a letter and told of their 20-day window to appeal. One mother told WDSU Investigates she missed her window to appeal in 2019 because the notice was mailed to an address associated with her ex-husband – at a property where she never lived. She only learned about it when it came up in a custody dispute, according to the mother and her lawyer.
Mizel’s bill proposes registry notification letters to be written, “in clear, concise and understandable language." It also requires they're sent by certified mail, which requires a signature on delivery. Senate Bill 62, slated for consideration in the Regular Legislative Session starting in mid-March, also requires the notices to include a specific deadline to appeal and the name and contact information of someone at DCFS they can reach for more information.
“We want to make sure the guilty is on the list, not the innocent,” Mizel said.
Other states examine child abuse registries
States like Texas and Michigan are also scrutinizing their child abuse registries
"This topic disproportionately affects communities of poverty, and communities of color,” Michigan state Rep. Barbara Carter told WDSU Investigates.
She’s part of a bipartisan effort to retool that state's registry, which she said she hopes will result vetting of the names already on their registry and a review of the process to add new people to it.
“Almost a half a million people are on that registry, we can shrink back, and Michigan can focus on the people that's actually harming children,” Carter said.
Brooklyn Roberts with the American Legislative Exchange Council said the bar in some states for adding names to registries doesn’t even require allegations to be substantiated.
“It’s just allegations of abuse,” said Roberts, whose nonprofit organization adopted model legislation to reform states’ child abuse registries.
No right to counsel in appeal process
WDSU Investigates asked DCFS how many names are on the registry but was told since it’s not an actual list – it’s not possible to provide that number. The agency did say 375 appeals were filed in 2021, 428 appeals in 2020, and 656 in 2019.
Chris Strickland said his takeaway from his experience with DCFS was how difficult, if not impossible, it would have been to get their son back in a timely manner and keep their names off the registry had they not shelled out thousands to pay for a private attorney. He noted they were never accused of any crime after New Orleans Department's child abuse detectives conducted an investigation at DCFS's request.
“Unfair power that's unchecked would be the way I would describe the whole thing,” Strickland said.
The ALEC model legislation requires states to give people access to all the records related to their case and to have subpoena power when appealing. DCFS spokeswoman Catherine Heitman said accused people in Louisiana have those rights when they appeal the registry through the Department of Administrative Law. But Louisiana does not appoint attorneys for those who can’t afford one – which the ALEC model legislation requires.
“It worked out the way it should have worked out the way it should have because we paid thousands and thousands of dollars, because we suffered a lot of trauma,” Chris Strickland said.
“There's so many people that can't afford that,” Tess Strickland added.
Task force proposed to address registry process
In addition to her bill, Mizel says she wants to explore systemic reform to the entire child abuse registry process through a task force within the Children's Cabinet. The Children's Cabinet is housed in the state's executive branch and is comprised of cabinet secretaries from each state department and chaired by a governor-appointed director.
“It takes people coming forward, who have had a bad experience. And I believe that's what the task force will allow us to do -- to hear from the public and share their experiences so that we can all do it better,” Mizel said.
The Stricklands said sharing their story wasn't easy, but after hearing from strangers and acquaintances who dealt with similar situations, and from seeing the legislative action, they're glad they did.
“It makes us feel like our voices are heard,” Tess Strickland said.
“You got to start somewhere to rectify a system change,” added Chris Strickland.
Mizel said she’ll propose the task force during the upcoming regular session, when her bill addressing the registry notification letters is also up for consideration. In a statement to WDSU Investigates, DCFS says it does not take positions on legislation but will work with lawmakers on any measure affecting children and families the agency serves.
Originally published by WDSU New Orleans