Georgia ends child abuse registry, saying database undermined intent

Georgia’s Capitol.
Georgia’s Capitol.

The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services has dissolved its child abuse registry after four years because officials say the database was making it more difficult to accurately track and punish instances of abuse.

The Georgia General Assembly in June unanimously passed legislation that repealed the system that went into place in 2016.

DFCS officials say the database not only duplicated information collected through its SHINES Portal — a statewide, automated child welfare information system — but kept the most egregious abusers off the list until they had gone through the court system.

State Rep. Katie Dempsey, the Rome Republican who sponsored House Bill 993, the legislation that repealed the registry, said it was important for Georgians to know that children still are being protected.

“Federal law requires every state to have our child welfare agencies, for child abuse and neglect, to have those records. That already existing case management system is SHINES,” she said. “This will be a better way to deal with it.”

Getting rid of the system, which was created as another way to keep abusers away from children, is expected to save the state about $1 million this fiscal year.

When DFCS receives a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, a social worker has to determine whether there was enough evidence to support the allegation and “substantiate” the claim.

“It worked in such a way that it very much undermined those goals for the system,” said Melissa Carter, the director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University who lobbied to pass the repeal. “It had a chilling effect on ’substantiation.’ ”

If the claim was substantiated, the offender would be placed on the child abuse registry, which could keep someone from fostering, adopting or working with children regardless of the severity of the alleged abuse or neglect.

The vast majority of cases overseen by DFCS are for neglect, which Carter said often occurs when a parent leaves a child unattended so he or she can go to work.

“The vast majority of children and families who come into the system are there for reasons of neglect, often which have a context of poverty around them,” Carter said. “So it was limiting people’s ability to pursue certain occupations or to build their families.”

The first month that the registry law took effect, in July 2016, the number of cases found to have enough evidence to support an allegation dropped by more than 50%. Social workers investigating an allegation began to weigh the current safety of a child against the evidence that abuse occurred — for example, if a boyfriend committed the abuse but is no longer in the picture. If the child is safe, the case may not be considered a “substantiated” case of abuse.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution report last year found that between 2012 and 2018, the number of reported instances of suspected abuse, most from people who are legally required to report suspicions, had nearly doubled, but the rate of “substantiated” allegations dropped by more than half.

State law requires anyone who is an employee or volunteer at a public entity or a private or nonprofit business that provides supervision of children to report suspected abuse.

In the most egregious cases of abuse or neglect, when criminal charges were filed, prosecutors asked that the names not be placed on the registry until after the court process was complete, which could take years.

Carter said that essentially nullified the full value of the registry.

“The most serious perpetrators, those who are the small but very serious number of cases, perpetrators of that kind of conduct, weren’t even named on the registry,” she said.

Carter said there are other processes in place to keep those at risk of harming children from coming into contact with them.

“People who pose an ongoing threat to children shouldn’t be allowed to be operators of day care centers, or be employed as bus drivers or teachers, or be approved as foster parents,” she said. “When you have an arrest history, there are other databases managed by law enforcement that also get checked when you apply for a child care license or to become an adoptive or foster parent. So we absolutely know who those people are.”