The idea of a national registry is to centralize some key data on individuals who have been found to be perpetrators of child abuse or neglect in one or more jurisdictions. Centralizing this information would allow other jurisdictions to acquire at least key data in a more efficient manner. It would also provide States the ability to identify previous substantiated findings of abuse and neglect in other jurisdictions independent of the reporting of prior residences by perpetrators. At the present time, this process of sharing information across States is highly individualized, labor intensive, and sporadic.
The interest in establishing a national registry comes at an important intersection of trends in the United States. These include
- a continued concern about the abuse of children, most notably those incidents which result in the death and/or abduction of a child, but also those resulting in egregious maltreatment of children, as reported in the press and the media;
- the large number of children maltreated annually and the investment of substantial government funds to address child maltreatment;
- the ongoing tension between considering the maltreatment of children as a social issue addressed by improving the social, economic, and emotional conditions of families, and a belief that parents who abuse their children should be punished and other children should be protected from such perpetrators;
- the increased interest in protecting children from not only their parents but also from other potentially abusive caregivers, such as foster parents, child care providers, substitute care providers, teachers, sports coaches, etc.;
- the wide expansion of automation in child welfare agencies, which makes possible the collection and maintenance of, and access to, large amounts of information, including "perpetrator" information; and
- the increasing demand by the public to have access to information, which is deemed to be necessary or useful in protecting children.
These trends have already resulted in the establishment of various registries including the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR), and the Federal Case Registry (FCR).
Historical Functions of State Registries
Although the term register or registry has been used in conjunction with child welfare for more than 100 years, it is only within the last 50 years that there has been more focused attention on the function and scope of child abuse registries. In its broadest terms, a registry is a database of identifiable persons containing a clearly defined set of data collected for a specific purpose. The rise in technical capacity to store and organize large amounts of data, as well as the parallel trend of increased methods of communicating and disseminating various types of data to both known and unknown users has further complicated the issue of what might constitute a national child abuse perpetrator registry.
In the 1960s, child abuse became recognized as a serious public concern, due in large part by the publication of C. Henry Kempe's article, The Battered Child Syndrome, in the Journal of The American Medical Association. Soon thereafter, the first child abuse registries, some of which were established by private charitable organizations, were established in large cities such as New York City and Los Angeles. The first statewide registries were then established by legislation in California, Illinois, Virginia, and Maryland. At that time, there were two major approaches to creating a central registry.
The first approach was the "medical community model" in which a registry would be used to maintain information on previous reports of suspicious injuries of children, in order to detect the battered child syndrome. The other approach was a "social services model" which viewed registries as a means to better understand child abuse and neglect by searching for previous reports of abuse or neglect on the same child or his siblings, to help determine whether there is a repeating or continuing pattern of parental maltreatment. In either case, the issues of widely sharing such data were not envisioned. Nor was there the intent to track recurrent perpetrators as the primary focus.
With the passage of the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 (CAPTA), many States received Federal funds to assist them in strengthening child protection programs including the development of child abuse registries. In 1975, a model act, known as the Child Protective Services Act of 1975, identified two additional purposes for a central register of reports. These included (1) helping ensure that investigations are done well and appropriate services are provided; and (2) serving as a research tool to determine the incidences of abuse and neglect in a State and the most effective types of treatment. Again, perpetrator tracking was not included.
In 1978, the first director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, Douglas Besharov, in a seminal article on central registries, "Putting Central Registries to Work: Using Modern Management Information Systems to Improve Child Protective Services," stated that a central registry should be a comprehensive management information system that would facilitate better child protective services (CPS) case management, assist in assessing danger to children by having information about their prior inclusion on the registry as subjects of a report, and improve CPS' accountability by monitoring follow-up on reports.
With a climate of continued concern about the increasing rate of child abuse in the 1980s and 1990s came a recognition that child abuse perpetrator registry information could serve as a tool to cast a larger protective net for children. Some States began to provide information in their child abuse registries about agency-substantiated "perpetrators" of abuse or neglect to other organizations in the screening of applicants for positions of trust with children, such as daycare providers, foster parents, and potential adoptive parents.
As awareness and support for governmental action to prevent child abuse and neglect was growing, the technology information revolution had begun. State child welfare agencies began to automate their child welfare systems and develop increased capacity for collecting data on children and their families who were reported to CPS agencies. Since the 1980s and 1990s, the application of information technology to child welfare practice has increased significantly. The 2003 National Study of Child Protective Services of Systems and Reform Efforts found that "all States had policies regarding the maintenance of a Central Registry or some type of record keeping system to track reports of abuse and neglect."
As States began to create more comprehensive case-tracking systems or case-monitoring systems, some States began to move away from stand-alone registries. As the quote above indicates, some States had identifiable registries, while other States had more encompassing systems. These new systems included far more data than the earlier registries, which were often limited to data about children and, possibly, parents.
The Adam Walsh Act
The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (Adam Walsh Act) directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish a registry of substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect (hereinafter, national child abuse registry) collected from State and tribal sources. The act specifies that the information contained in the national child abuse registry should be accessible only to Federal, State, local, and tribal entities that have a need for such information to carry out their responsibilities for the protection of children from child abuse and neglect. Key features of the national child abuse registry, as described in statute include the following:
- The registry "shall contain case-specific identifying information that is limited to the name of the perpetrator and the nature of the substantiated case of child abuse or neglect."
- The law explicitly prohibits HHS from requiring States and Indian tribes to modify their existing registries or child maltreatment records to comply with the Adam Walsh Act and may not require the establishment of registries by those jurisdictions that do not have them.
- Information provided to the Secretary of HHS "shall be coextensive with" a State's or Indian tribe's equivalent electronic registry if it maintains one.