Audit Reveals Problems with Louisiana DCFS Child Abuser Registry

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According to a report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, Louisiana requires less evidence before placing someone’s name on a state registry of alleged child abusers. Louisiana’s Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) also fails to properly notify suspected perpetrators that their names are being added to the registry, effectively denying their right to appeal the decision.

According to the Louisiana Children’s Code, DCFS is required to maintain a State Central Registry of perpetrators of “certain valid findings” of child abuse and/or neglect. When comparing 17 other states’ requirements for inclusion on a state registry, auditor Mike Waguespack found that Louisiana used the lowest standard of evidence – a “reasonable cause to believe” – to validate an allegation of abuse or neglect. The majority of states surveyed instead use a preponderance of evidence – more than 50% likelihood of abuse, based on gathered evidence – to substantiate allegations of abuse.

According to DCFS, the lower level of evidence required in Louisiana allows them to include investigations that are not recorded by the criminal justice system. However, according to a 2017 study, requiring a higher level of evidence to support agency findings resulted in an increase in the delivery of services to families, and a possible decrease in foster care placements. In addition, the preponderance of evidence standard is still lower than the level of proof necessary for a criminal conviction. From 2019 to 2021, less than one-third of the child welfare investigations in Louisiana results in valid findings of abuse or neglect.

“When horrible things happen to children ‘known to the system,’ it’s almost always because agencies like DCFS are overwhelmed,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “But what’s overwhelming them are false reports, trivial cases, and cases in which poverty is confused with neglect.”

Of the 14,604 substantiated cases found over the three-year period, 1,501 were appealed, and 426 (28.4%) were overturned. However, the audit notes that the low number of appeals may be due to the fact that DCFS is failing to ensure suspected perpetrators are properly notified of their appeal rights. DCFS does not use certified mail – which requires the recipient to sign for delivery – to notify suspected perpetrators, instead relying on regular mail.

“DCFS staff and several surveyed states noted that ensuring individuals receive notification letters is particularly challenging, especially when individuals do not have stable housing or have a mailing address that is different from their physical address.”

In addition, those that do receive their letters may not understand them, the audit notes.

“For example, the current letters refer to legal citations but do not explain what they mean, such as describing reasons that SCR information can be released. As a result, if individuals do not have the knowledge or resources needed to look up these citations, they may not fully understand how placement on the SCR could impact their employability, volunteer opportunities, etc. when deciding to file an appeal.”

Furthermore, because Louisiana does not provide legal counsel to individuals who cannot afford to hire an attorney for appeals proceedings, the audit notes that poorer families may have a harder time appealing a finding of neglect or abuse. “This can place individuals who cannot afford an attorney at a disadvantage when seeking to have a valid finding overturned,” the audit states.

“The important thing to understand here is who is hurt most when the registry doesn’t have sufficient due process protections. Once again, it’s children,” Wexler said. “A listing on the central registry bars people from jobs that are often the first rung on the ladder for poor people trying to work their way out of poverty. So a needless listing in a registry drives families deeper into the poverty that may have led to the listing on the registry in the first place. And of course, a false listing on the registry makes it more likely that if the family ever is falsely accused again, the children will be taken away.”

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