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Tens of thousands of child abuse suspects are missing from California’s statewide child abuse registry, a new audit found, and hundreds of background checks have failed to flag instances of serious abuse and neglect as a result.

The unreliable database leaves “the safety of children at risk” by rendering the tool inadequate for vetting people looking to work with, foster or adopt children.

The state’s Department of Justice, which maintains the registry, agreed with a recommendation that the process become automated in an effort to assure that all the necessary records are included. But the Department of Social Services raised concerns as to whether both agencies have the technical capacity to do that without violating privacy laws.

The audit, publicly released on May 31, revealed that the Child Abuse Central Index (CACI) — which is meant to catalog all instances of child abuse and severe neglect — was missing more than half of the 52,000 cases substantiated by county child welfare agencies during the four-year period investigators reviewed.

The missing reports, which span July 2017 through June 2021, include 22,000 abuse suspects who aren’t included in other registry reports, leaving them eligible to work with or care for children.

“This difference means that authorized users of CACI cannot depend on the database to help protect children when they make decisions about hiring individuals to work in day care centers or group homes, or about whom they can entrust with the care or custody of a child,” acting State Auditor Michael Tilden wrote in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and state legislative leadership.

Tilden’s team notes in the report that it’s “highly likely” that the problem expands beyond the four-year period they reviewed, and many older cases may be missing from the registry.

The registry is designed to alert organizations that hire or license people to work or volunteer with children about any history of abuse in an applicant’s background. This includes foster care and adoption agencies, law enforcement departments, and hundreds of youth-serving nonprofits and child care providers.

The registry contains maltreatment cases that county child welfare departments have investigated and substantiated, meaning investigators found it more likely than not that abuse occurred. County workers then report those cases to the state agency for inclusion in the database.

In California, only cases of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and severe neglect — defined as “the intentional failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care” — are included on the registry. General neglect, which represents the vast majority of child welfare cases, does not get reported to the state.

With this limitation, California is among the states with the narrowest rules for inclusion on the abuse registry — one of just 15 states that limit the type of abuse that can land someone on the database to just cases deemed severe or high-risk, according to a legal brief from the City University of New York Law Review. It is also one of 35 states that requires a higher standard of evidence for a maltreatment allegation to be substantiated. But if someone does get listed on California’s registry, that record is there for life, barring a successful appeal of the decision.

Auditors found that county agency records included 27,000 cases of abuse that were not included in the statewide database, all of which, they confirmed in the report, met registry criteria.

This discrepancy led to at least 224 instances of background checks returning results that the subject of the check did not have a history of child abuse when they did.

In September 2020, for example, a background check was run on someone applying for a license to run a day care. Although county records indicated this person had a history of abuse, that record was missing from the state registry, so the Department of Justice said the person’s background was clear. The error wasn’t discovered and addressed until the auditors noticed it in their review in March 2022 — leaving 18 months during which the person “may have inappropriately had access to children.”

The report notes that the 224 confirmed instances is likely a significant undercount, because the Department of Justice does not keep background check records for expedited requests, like those used when law enforcement has custody of a child and is looking to make an emergency placement with a relative or in a foster home.

While noting this problem is of smaller “size and scope,” auditors also note they found 298 reports in the registry that should have been deleted. A sample of these erroneously included cases showed they did not meet eligibility requirements, had been improperly recorded or counties had reversed their prior substantiation.

Recent media reports have focused on the damaging effects for those included on the registry erroneously or for general neglect findings, and wind up effectively banned from certain job markets as a result.

“It is notable that despite widespread concern that individuals may be inappropriately included on child abuse registries, this audit suggests that under-inclusion may be a much more common error,” said Emily Putnam-Hornstein, a child welfare researcher and professor at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work.

Tilden’s team suggests that the thousands of missing reports are due to an “error-prone” process of Justice Department staff manually entering reports that are mailed to them through the postal service by county agencies — a process that takes an average of 28 days, according to the audit. They further found that the department did not have a process in place to track the reports it received to ensure they were entered into the database.

If mailed reports have any errors or missing information, the DOJ mails them back to the county for correction, but also does not have a process for tracking those returned reports, auditors found.

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In a sampling of 60 missing cases, auditors found that in about half of the cases, counties said they sent the report to the state department, but it wasn’t entered into the index. In 23 of the cases, counties either didn’t send the report or didn’t have records to prove they had. Five of the cases had been inaccurately labeled as substantiated in county records.

The auditors recommend a legislative change that would allow Justice Department employees to directly access electronic county records.

Colleen Henry, an assistant professor at the City University of New York’s Silberman School of Social Work and former child welfare worker in California, said that taking the task of filing these reports off overworked social workers is a good idea. She said overextended social workers will often prioritize ensuring a child’s safety over submitting a report to a state database — particularly when abuse has been substantiated.

“The more streamlined the process — with sufficient checks in place — the better, given the many different tasks that social workers have to complete, especially for substantiated cases,” Henry said.

But, she added, if Justice Department employees are directly accessing county records to upload cases to the registry, there needs to be a safeguard in place to ensure that they’re also alerted when a substantiation has been reversed or a case no longer meets registry criteria for any other reason.

Auditors also want state law changed to require all substantiated reports of abuse or severe neglect to be included in DOJ background checks; currently, state law allows reports to be excluded if child welfare investigators were not able to interview the subject, even if the remaining evidence leads them to substantiate the abuse claim. In three of the 60 cases they reviewed, substantiated cases of abuse — including sexual abuse and exploitation — were not submitted to the registry because the child welfare agency had not been able to interview the suspect.

Auditors also laid out recommendations for the Department of Justice, the California Department of Social Services, and several counties whose reporting policies were reviewed. All agencies generally agreed to comply with the recommendations.

Aside from reconciling the identified missing or erroneous reports in the registry, recommendations for the Justice Department include developing policies and procedures to ensure records are removed from the state registry when necessary. They also want the department to enact a system of tracking all reports submitted to the department and those returned to counties for additional information, to ensure the reports are added to the registry.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Rob Bonta, who heads the Department of Justice, pushed back on the audit in a written response to Tilden’s office, accusing the report of “overstating and inflating” the department’s role in administering the database. Under state law, he wrote, the department must act as a “repository” for reports submitted by counties, but counties themselves are responsible for ensuring that eligible cases are accurately reported to the DOJ.

Despite this pushback, the Department of Justice generally agreed with and said they would implement auditors’ recommendations.

The report recommends that the Department of Social Services provide monthly reports to the Justice Department compiling all substantiated reports from counties, as well as those for which the substantiation had been reversed.

Kim Johnson, director or CDSS, questioned the feasibility of implementing the recommendation to allow the Justice Department direct access to child abuse investigation records citing technical limitations and privacy laws, but said her department would work to improve the accuracy and efficiency of reporting to the registry while balancing privacy concerns of individuals involved in child welfare cases.

Child abuse registries have been the focus of recent controversy, with critics noting the deep racial disparities and long lasting economic impacts suffered by people whose names appear in these databases.

An April investigation from BuzzFeed News concluded that “the system often metes out a miscarriage of justice, doing little or nothing to protect children while inflicting lasting harm on adults,” sometimes stemming from a momentary lapse in judgement, a years-old concern that no longer applies or a poverty-related struggle.

In a legal brief for the City University of New York Law Review, Henry and fellow social work professor Vicki Lens note that “poor people—particularly poor Black people—are more likely to be surveilled by state agents, making them more vulnerable to scrutiny and substantiation” than more affluent parents.

Black and low-income women also comprise a large share of people in child care jobs, researchers note, and as a result of registries “are likely denied or dismissed from thousands of jobs each year.”

In a recent interview with The Imprint Weekly podcast, Henry said that social workers aren’t thinking about these broader registry implications when they’re deciding whether to substantiate a case.

“They’re not thinking about whether this person poses a risk to children in school settings, in child care settings, hospitals,” she said. “They’re evaluating whether or not abuse or neglect occurred, not whether this person poses a risk in the future to a more general population.”

In a nod to these concerns, Johnson also wrote that CDSS was “committed to supporting exploration of policies that may increase the fairness and equity of the CACI, which has received criticism as unfairly and inappropriately impacting individuals whose names were submitted to the index.”

This article was originally published on The Imprint.