DCS expanding public disclosure of suspected child abuser names

The names of suspected child abusers — not just those charged or convicted — will be made publicly available by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services under a new policy said to be following an old law, reports Richard Locker.

DCS has long maintained an internal, secret registry of people whom the agency has “substantiated” for child abuse or neglect but has, as required by state law, worked with such institutions as schools, child-care centers and foster-care providers to verify whether potential new employees are on the list. State law prohibits people on the DCS registry from being hired as teachers or child-care providers and from being foster parents.

But now, based on a new review of a 1987 law that predates the 1996 creation of DCS, the department will make available names from its registry for inclusion on the separate “abuse registry” maintained by the Health Department. That registry is, by law, on the Health Department’s website. Anyone can enter a name to see whether it’s on the registry of people who abused adults, usually in such settings as nursing homes or home care.

A DCS internal review of its operating policies discovered the 1987 law apparently requires that the department share names added to its registry with the Health Department database.

“We think it’s the right thing to do. DCS found this nearly 30-year-old statute and brought it to the attention of the Department of Health,” DCS spokesman Rob Johnson said.

The confidential DCS registry has about 154,000 names, but they will not be forwarded to the Health Department retroactively. Instead, DCS began notifying people on March 15 who were being added to its child-abuse registry from that date forward that their names could also appear on the public abuse registry and how to appeal their placement on it. DCS began on July 1 sending to the Health Department the names of people who did not appeal.

“We have to ensure that everyone gets due process,” Johnson said.

But among child-welfare advocates inside and outside the agency, there are concerns about the new policy — partly because inclusion on the registries is usually permanent and partly because it could hamper the confidential nature of DCS’s work with families.

“First and foremost, nobody wants any vulnerable adult or child to be abused, so the intent of the Department of Health registry is to prevent that. People clearly belong on that (Health Department) registry who have abused adults,” said Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. “That’s different from some circumstances involving children. Clearly, people who have committed child sex abuse ought to be on the registry. Where it becomes grayer is circumstances involving intrafamily maltreatment but not sexual abuse — especially, for example, where young parents who may be under incredible pressures for a whole range of reasons do something stupid and wrong but are never likely to do it again. That’s different from a situation where an adult is abusing somebody in a facility.

“Once you go on that registry, it circumscribes job and other opportunities for the future. It could be a mom with severe postpartum depression who neglects a child before getting treatment.”