Friday, December 16, 2011

Improvements suggested for Iowa's child abuse registry

Written by Lee Rood

A panel charged with making changes to Iowa’s controversial and confidential child abuse registry issued a series of suggested improvements Friday, some of which would require action by the Legislature next year.

In the short term, state officials are taking steps to expedite appeals of abuse findings, especially when people’s jobs are at stake.

“The timeframes and delays in getting hearings and decisions completed was a priority for me,” said Citizens Aide/Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider, whose office receives several calls each year inquiring how to appeal or dispute abuse findings. “We have had cases that have languished for more than a year, and there are legal issues involved.”

One long-term recommendation from the mix of state officials and child-welfare professionals on the panel would give Iowa’s Department of Human Services more authority to remove people from the 10-year registry and seal abuse findings based on certain criteria.

Others ideas panel members thought should be explored: Allowing DHS to put only certain kinds of abuse on the registry, and varying the length of time names remain on the list based on the severity of the abuse.

Legislators and parents have complained for years that people whose names are placed on the registry have few due-process rights. It takes no conviction in court to end up on the registry - only a finding by DHS staff that it was "more likely than not" that the person neglected a child or, in a much smaller number of cases, abused a child.

The Legislature this year required the agency to work with other agencies and groups to address problems.

Currently, between 50,000 and 60,000 Iowans are on the registry, which is used to screen child-care workers and others who deal with children.

About 8,890 abuse reports were “founded” by social workers last year, meaning the individuals responsible were placed on the registry. Another 3,071 reported resulted in “confirmed” abuse, meaning there was evidence of abuse but not enough to place someone on the registry.

About 1,270 people filed appeals of abuse findings in 2011. Of those, 109 were from a finding of “not confirmed.”

The remaining 75 percent to 80 percent were settled. The most common finding is that the abuse is confirmed, but not placed on the registry. Settlements often involve those accused taking part in recommended services to reduce the risk of future abuse.


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