Assessing the Feasibility of Creating and Maintaining a National Registry of Child Maltreatment Perpetrators: Research Report. Executive Summary

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to establish a national registry of maltreatment perpetrators (also often referred to as a national child abuse registry), and to conduct a feasibility study regarding a variety of implementation issues including costs and benefits, data collection standards, and due process procedures. In May of 2009, DHHS delivered an Interim Report to the Congress that summarized the current state of knowledge on these issues and identified the key tasks to be addressed in a full feasibility study. These included: a prevalence study to determine the number of interstate perpetrators that might be identified through a national registry; a systems review to document current State policies and practices regarding the collection, maintenance, and sharing of information on substantiated child maltreatment perpetrators; a review of States' existing due process procedures; and an exploration of State interest in and concerns over participating in a national registry.

This report provides the results of this feasibility study, carried out by Walter R. McDonald & Associates, Inc. and its partner, the Center for Children and the Law, American Bar Association. The study has two major components: a Prevalence Study, and a Key Informants Survey (KIS). The KIS was composed of three surveys related to legal and policy issues, child welfare practices related to obtaining and providing data on perpetrators to out of State requestors, and the capacity of the information technology supporting State registries to participate in a national registry. Twenty-two States submitted multiyear data to the Prevalence Study, and 38 States participated in the KIS. Information from the legal and policy survey was supplemented on selected key legal topics with a review of available State laws and policies.

The Prevalence Study estimated the number of substantiated perpetrators in 2009 who had also been substantiated in another State within the previous 5 years. In addition, the study assessed whether these perpetrators committed more serious cases of maltreatment compared to other perpetrators, and whether the majority of them had previous reports in neighboring States. The primary data source for the study was the individual case records from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) for 2005-2009, supplemented with name and date of birth information for all substantiated perpetrators, supplied by the 22 States participating in the study (representing 54 percent of the U.S. population). Names were encoded by the States prior to submission in order to maintain confidentiality while still supporting the cross-state matching of records. Data from the 2000 decennial Census on interstate migration rates were used to model estimates for non-participating States.

The Prevalence Study investigated a number of algorithms for matching records across States to identify interstate perpetrators. These analyses were intended to determine whether the Adam Walsh Act provision limiting identifying information collected within a national registry to the perpetrator's name would prove feasible, and if not, what other identifying information would be necessary to produce adequate matches. Matches based on encoded name only proved completely inadequate, resulting in interstate matches for 89 percent of all records, the vast majority of which are likely to be false positive results. While unencoded names would reduce the percentage of matches somewhat, these results make it clear that name alone will not be adequate to produce reliable matches in a national registry. Matches based on encoded name, sex, and date of birth, produced much higher quality matches.

After adjusting for migration from nonparticipating states, the Prevalence Study model produced a national estimate of 7,852 interstate perpetrators in 2009, representing about 1.5 percent of all substantiated perpetrators in that year. The number of annual matches for a national registry could be larger, though, depending on the purposes for which it was used. Interstate perpetrators were found to have more serious cases in that they were more likely to have had a child removed from the household in 2009 (30% to 20%), and more likely to have had court involvement (28% to 19%). However, no differences were found in the seriousness of the types of substantiated maltreatment (measured as neglect, medical neglect, emotional maltreatment, physical abuse, and sexual abuse). In addition, very few perpetrators with prior findings were connected in any way to a child death in 2009; only 4 deaths out of a national total of 925 in the comparison year (2009) were associated with an interstate perpetrator. Finally, it was found that the majority of these perpetrators do not appear to migrate from neighboring States, though the percentages varied significantly across States (10% to 40% for the five States for which this factor could be assessed).

The Key Informant Survey (KIS) was actually three separate surveys covering legal and policy issues, current practices in sharing perpetrator information with other States, and the content and accuracy of existing state perpetrator registries. The perceived benefits and barriers to participating in a national registry were also asked in all three surveys. Each survey was completed by the staff person determined to be the most knowledgeable by the Director of the State child welfare agency. Detailed results are available in the full report. Key findings include the following:

Legal/Policy Findings

  • Less than 2/3 of States (62%) use "preponderance of the evidence" or a higher standard of proof in determining who is a substantiated perpetrator of child maltreatment. The remaining States use a less strict standard.
  • One third (35%) allow names to be placed on a registry pending appeal.
  • Seventy-two percent of responding States indicated that they would (28%) or might (44%) have to change State laws in order to participate in a national registry.

Practice Findings

  • Practices regarding which out-of-state entities may have access to state registry information on perpetrators vary substantially across the States, with many not granting access for employment checks.
  • Most States do not routinely share gender, date of birth, or social security number when responding to out-of-state requests.
  • However, nearly all States collect sex, date of birth or age, and name of perpetrator, and three quarters also collect social security numbers, indicating a general capacity to supply information needed to reliably identify interstate perpetrators in a national registry.

Perceived Benefits and Barriers to Participation

  • The most frequent benefits mentioned by the participating States include saving time (mentioned by 25 States), providing more timely knowledge that would be useful in assessing child safety (22 States) , improving cross-State accessibility of information (19 States) and simplifying access to information by providing a single source of information on maltreatment histories (19 States).
  • The most frequent barriers mentioned were differences in definitions, findings, due process and rules for expunging old or overturned cases between (and even within) States (mentioned by 22 States), that participating would require costly changes to their information technology systems (15 States), and that participating would require staff resources that are scarce (13 States). A number of States were also concerned about the potential for false positives and false negatives in the identification process.

The report draws the following implications regarding the potential establishment of a national registry:

  • Legislative changes at the federal level will be needed to allow for the collection of the minimum information needed to accurately identify perpetrators in the national registry. At minimum, sex, and date of birth would be necessary to produce better matches; social security numbers may also be desirable.
  • A substantial majority of States will need to participate in the national registry and supply data on a regular basis in order for it to be useful to users. This may require incentives for participation.
  • Minimum due process standards may be necessary for a national registry, and not all States currently meet likely standards.
  • Most States will or may need to change State laws in order to participate in a national registry. Necessary changes are likely to depend on who may use the registry and for what purposes, which are not clear in the current law.

 

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