Audit finds fault with Louisiana child abuser registry

Compared with most other states, Louisiana requires less evidence to place someone’s name on a state registry of child abuse perpetrators, according to a report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.

The State Central Registry is a list of names of child abusers the state uses as a screening tool for anyone applying to foster or work with children. Federal legislation in 2014 and 2018 required all states to perform registry “clearances” or checks on staff of child care providers and institutions, potentially impacting the employment of individuals on state registries.

In a survey of 17 states, the audit found only Louisiana and three others use the lowest standard of evidence — a reasonable cause to believe — to determine whether an allegation of child abuse or neglect is valid. The 14 other states surveyed use a preponderance of the evidence standard — meaning more than a 50% likelihood — to substantiate an allegation.

The audit cites a 2017 study that concluded states witj a higher evidence standard reported “an increase in the delivery of services to families, a possible decrease in foster care placements, and was not associated with an increase in total child fatalities.”

More than two-thirds of the child welfare investigations in Louisiana result in no valid findings of abuse or neglect. The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has investigated 51,303 cases from 2019 to 2021 and substantiated only about 28.5% of them.

According to Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, most child welfare cases are cases of poverty confused with neglect.

“When horrible things happen to children ‘known to the system,’ it’s almost always because agencies like DCFS are overwhelmed,” Wexler said in an email. “But what’s overwhelming them are false reports, trivial cases and cases in which poverty is confused with neglect.”

Of the cases substantiated, 1,501 were appealed, and 426 were overturned on appeal, according to the audit, which also called attention to possible economic disenfranchisement in the appeals process. Neither Louisiana nor any of the surveyed states provide legal counsel to individuals who cannot afford to hire an attorney for the appeal proceedings.

“This can place individuals who cannot afford an attorney at a disadvantage when seeking to have a valid finding overturned,” the audit stated.

The audit also points out that DCFS may be failing to properly notify suspected perpetrators of their appeal rights. The agency does not use certified mail to notify perpetrators their names will be placed on the registry and that they have 20 days to appeal the decision. As a result, some individuals may never receive the letter and miss their chance to appeal.

Louisiana will allow individuals to file an appeal after the deadline has passed if they can show they never received the notification letter.

However, Louisiana is ahead of most other states with some features that strengthen due process protections.

In 11 of the surveyed states, the appeals proceedings are conducted by the same state agency that conducted the initial child abuse investigation. Louisiana is among those where a third-party agency, the Division of Administrative Law, handles the appeals, thus providing “greater assurance of an impartial decision-maker,” the audit said.

Also, DCFS adds suspected perpetrators to the registry only after their appeal rights are exhausted or not requested, the audit noted.

“The important thing to understand here is who is hurt most when the registry doesn’t have sufficient due process protections. Once again, it’s children,” Wexler said. “A listing on the central registry bars people from jobs that are often the first rung on the ladder for poor people trying to work their way out of poverty. So a needless listing in a registry drives families deeper into the poverty that may have led to the listing on the registry in the first place. And of course a false listing on the registry makes it more likely that if the family ever is falsely accused again, the children will be taken away.” 

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