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Attorneys sound alarm over Alabama child abuse registry

More than 6% of the state's population is listed on a database of people accused of child abuse or neglect. The information can be disclosed prior to dispositions in cases and without the person’s knowledge or consent.

(CN) — In one case, a licensed nurse and her newborn child were administered separate drug screens just after she had given birth in Baldwin County in November 2021. Both tested positive for THC and as a result, hospital employees – who are also mandatory reporters – notified the Alabama Department of Human Resources of the mother’s drug use and a perceived future potential for child abuse. 

During the DHR’s subsequent investigation, the mother acknowledged she used Delta 8 THC and CBD products to combat nausea during her pregnancy. Although Delta 8 is sold legally in Alabama, the mother was unaware it would reflect positively on a test for marijuana, which the state still classifies as an illegal Schedule I drug, or that it would prompt DHR’s intervention. 

Although the agency agreed to release the child into the mother’s care, the mother’s name was nevertheless added to a confidential database known as the Central Registry, where it was also noted she had been “indicated” for child abuse and/or neglect.

In another case, a grandmother who was employed as a day care worker in Montgomery County between 2017 and 2021 was suddenly subjected to a background check after the day care facility applied for federal funding. The review uncovered a 1993 criminal conviction for third-degree assault. The woman, who was 19 years old at the time of the incident, admitted she slapped her sister’s 18-year-old boyfriend “because of his treatment of her sister.”

Unbeknownst to the woman, the state retroactively defined her as an “adult convicted of a crime against a child,” even though they were less than a year apart in age. Correspondingly, the DHR added her name to the Central Registry and after the background check — 28 years later — she was terminated by her employer. 

As of Dec. 15, Alabama’s Central Registry contains the names of 312,862 persons with “indicated dispositions” for child abuse or neglect, a number representing nearly 8% of all adults in the state or 6.1% percent of the total population.

With a simple inquiry, registered users of the database – including employers, law enforcement agencies, courts and nonprofit or religious organizations with access to children – can access sensitive investigative details including allegations, reports, assessments and dispositions involving subjects who may not have had an opportunity to defend themselves. 

Although the state statute establishing the database provides recourse for some, attorney James V. “Bubba” Green of Alabaster said others are left without due process and the effects on their personal and professional lives can be “devastating.” Green is currently representing at least two clients in related cases against DHR in state and federal courts. 

“The problem I see as a lawyer is that the decision to make an indicated disposition which puts someone on the registry lies with the DHS or social worker who investigates the report of child abuse or neglect,” Green said. “If you stop there, DHR is the judge, jury and executioner. There’s no authority, there’s no balancing, there’s no method by which you can effectively attack the opinion of a government agent.”

In a federal lawsuit filed in September, one of Green’s clients argued she has been “stigmatized, slandered and defamed” as a result of her listing on the registry, and her rights and abilities to participate in her children’s education and extracurricular activities have been distinctly altered.

Green acknowledged the statute allows accused individuals a small window to contest the charges via an “administrative record review” but said unless similar lawsuits are filed, most names will likely remain on the registry. Green also called the statute “strangely written,” in that limited due process is only provided for people who work with or are seeking to work with children. He added those who have grounds to fight the charges often don’t have the means to hire an attorney to represent them. 

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“Look, the state has an interest in knowing whether you are a child abuser, there is no doubt about that, and there’s an overlap when there is a crime and an arrest and an investigation by law enforcement,” he said. “But it seems as though allowing DHR to be the final decision maker on whether or not there is abuse, I don’t think there are other agencies that have that kind of authority.”

More problematic, indications of child abuse and neglect have been released to users of the database before dispositions in some cases have even been reached, “creating a huge problem that scares the bejesus out of me as a lawyer and a fairly conservative thinker,” Green said. And although there is a confidentiality requirement, Green believes it’s naïve to assume it’s always or ever adhered to.

Similarly, Narissa Nelson said in her 36 years as a family law attorney in Baldwin County, she has encountered problems with DHR child abuse investigations and the Central Registry “over and over again and it has only gotten worse.” Reports of abuse or neglect are entered into the system within three days of receipt, but sometimes take months to resolve.

“What they do is send you a letter saying we found probable cause basically, that either the child has been neglected or will be neglected or be in danger in the future,” Nelson said. “Then they say you have 10 days to ask for a review of this, but it's an internal review. So DHR sits down with DHR and looks at whatever they've done and then they make a decision whether it's justified or not. And of course it's always justified and there are absolutely no procedures for getting an appeal of any kind if you don’t work in the child care industry.” 

Nelson noted the agency is also rife with high turnover and low experience among its own employees, leading to more erroneous investigations and dispositions. Both Green and Nelson said it’s not uncommon for opposing parties in contentious child custody cases to make false and malicious allegations against another parent or guardian, which has led to children being taken into state custody while dispositions are reached. Throughout the case, DHR investigators, who are sometimes just months out of college, may withhold specific allegations, evidence and testimony from the accused. 

“There needs to be an absolute right for an evidentiary hearing before they can place somebody on any kind of registry,” Nelson said. “Even pedophiles get a judicial review before they are placed on a sex offender registry. These people don’t.”

In response to a series of questions about the Central Registry, a spokesman for Alabama DHR provided the total number of names listed as well as the number of individuals added to the registry each year since 2018, reflecting an average of nearly 12,000 people per year. Data for the removal of names from the registry was not readily available, the spokesman said. The department also provided its policy for use of the Central Registry, which includes a process for expungement. 

A name can be expunged only after the accused submits a written request and there has been “no indication” of child abuse or neglect in the investigation, five years have elapsed from the disposition date and the accuser has not been accused again. The spokesman was unavailable for follow-up questions until Dec. 27.

“That is totally ineffective,” Green said. “This is the kind of thing that can end a person’s career, affect their livelihood and ability to be a parent to their tribe.”

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