In June 2019, the Pardo family experienced arguably the worst day of their lives. After a physician falsely accused the parents of medical abuse, their developmentally challenged son Drake, 4, was taken away by Child Protective Services. The Pardos fought six months in court before being cleared of all charges, but the damage had been done. Not only did Drake spend four unnecessary and traumatizing months in foster care, but the Pardos also found themselves placed on a “blacklist” known formally as the Central Registry—a stigmatizing government list of accused child abusers that carries severe implications and affords few due process protections.
The Central Registry in Texas lists the names of people found by the Department of Family and Protective Services to have abused or neglected a child. Individuals are frequently placed on the registry before having their case heard in a court of law. Even in cases where, like the Pardos, a court finds the person innocent of abuse or neglect allegations, they will remain listed on the registry because Texas law does not provide for automatic expungement. Getting removed from the registry is a lengthy, complicated, and potentially expensive process. An alleged perpetrator who wishes to be removed from the registry must first request what is known as an Administrative Review of Investigative Findings (ARIF), an informal process that can take 45 days or more. The ARIF is conducted by DFPS, meaning that the agency reviewing the listing is the same agency that listed the person on the registry in the first place. The next tier of appeal after ARIF is the DFPS Office of Consumer Relations—which has no deadline to issue a decision. If DFPS rejects a person’s request for removal at both the ARIF and Office of Consumer Relations levels, the person can appeal to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). While this administrative forum is independent of DFPS, receiving a timely resolution is unlikely due to the backlog of cases. Recent processing times for DFPS cases at SOAH have averaged 1644 days—a wait of more than 4 years.
But the adjudication process isn’t the only problem. Listing on Texas’ Central Registry carries severe penalties, such as the denial of employment opportunities and destruction of reputations.
In more than 30 states, employers use central registries to screen applicants in the hiring process, most frequently within the education, childcare and health industries. Caregiving jobs that low-income women and women of color often rely on are the very jobs that are most likely to be barred if they are placed on such a registry. 97.7% of preschool workers are women, and 40% of childcare jobs are held by women of color. According to Colleen Henry and Laina Sonterblum in Social Work, 2019, “Central registries…may paradoxically undermine child well-being—a central goal of the child welfare system—by increasing risk of poverty related maltreatment.”
Fortunately, courts have recognized the due process concerns central registries present across the nation. In the 2007 case Jamison v. State Department of Social Services Division of Family Services, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that the loss of liberty is not justified solely on the results of an investigation resulting in a child abuse or neglect listing on the central registry. In North Carolina, the Court of Appeals upheld in 2010 a similar decision, determining that listing individuals in the state’s central registry prior to a court hearing violates 14th Amendment due process protections.
For the state to ensure that families such as the Pardos are protected from the violations of their constitutional liberty that result from a central registry listing, policymakers need to enact change in two ways: First, Texas must prohibit the listing of individuals prior to a court hearing determining their guilt or innocence. There must also be an independent and timely appeals process for those who find themselves listed on the registry. Finally, rather than condemning individuals to the registry for life, listing should tie the time spent on the registry to the severity of the allegations and provide an opportunity for a person listed on the registry to petition for removal based on a showing of a change in circumstances or rehabilitation. . Through these few changes, legislators can reform the central registry and the child abuse and neglect system into one which protects children from legitimate harm and promotes free and flourishing families.