Central Registry: Protection or Oppression
Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield*
ABSTRACT: The proposed National Child Protection Act of 1991
includes a national central registry similar to those in most of the
states. Such a registry, if the legislation is enacted, will likely have
unintended consequences, including the violation of the civil liberties
of those whose names will be included on it.
On November 14, 1991, Senator Biden rose to address the Senate and
introduce a bill, S. 1966, titled the National Child Protection Act of
1991. Cosponsors included senators Thurmond, DeConcini, McConnell,
Metzenbaum, Grasslet, Heflin, Simon, Specter, Dixon, Durenberger,
Kasten, and Hatch. As recorded in the Congressional Record, November 14,
1991 (S 16749), Senator Biden said:
Mr. President, I rise today to introduce legislation to confront
what I believe is one of the most threatening dangers confronting the
Nation-the tragedy of child abuse ... Many abused children are
victimized in their homes, but there is a large and growing number of
children being victimized outside the home ... must be met by an
expanded national effort to protect these children.
Senator Thurmond also spoke in support of S.1966 and said (S 17652):
Mr. President, the protection of innocent children from abuse is a
vastly important matter of national concern which must be
addressed. Frankly, I can think of no crime more deserving of
our national attention and harsh punishment than the molestation or
abuse of a child. . . . Those who violently prey upon childhood
innocence must be caught, prosecuted, and sentenced to tough criminal
The proposed National Child Protection Act of 1991 is legislation
"to establish a national background check procedure . . . initiate
the reporting of all State and Federal child abuse crimes . . . and
provide protection from inaccurate information for persons subjected to
background checks . . . and for other purposes. . ." (S
16749). This legislation, if enacted, will set up a national data
base to include information from the state central registries. As
printed in the Congressional Record, the proposed bill defines
"child abuse crime information" to include anybody who has
been indicted or convicted of a child abuse crime under state law.
This national system requires state agencies to maintain a close liaison
with the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, the National Center
for Missing and Exploited Children, and the National Center for the
Prosecution of Child Abuse "for the exchange of information and
technical assistance" (S 16750). It is left to the individual
states to determine the procedures so that ". . . qualified
entities identified by States; authorized representatives of a qualified
entity who have a need to know such information; the providers; law
enforcement authorities; or pursuant to the direction of a court of law
. . ." (S 16751) may get the information contained in this national
registry. Both Senator Biden and Senator Thurmond identify the
source of this proposed legislation as the plan and recommendations
brought before the Senate judiciary committee by Oprah Winfrey, actress,
television personality, talk show host, and child abuse activist.
The protection of children is the rationale behind the establishment
of state central registries and now that concept is advanced as the
reason for a national registry. When the idea of a central registry of
abused and neglected children was first proposed in the early 1960s, its
purpose was primarily diagnostic. If a physician suspected a child
had been abused, a call to a central bureau could discover if that child
had previously been reported as abused and then the physician could make
the diagnosis of child abuse (Besharov, 1978; Whiting, 1977). This
enabled the child protective services to act to protect a child.
However, as public consciousness and awareness of child abuse was raised
in the 70s, protecting the child began to include using a report of
abuse to obtain services in a climate of declining resources and funding
. . . there was a shift in other aspects of the community's
services for children and families ... Slowly and subtly, at
first, there began to develop a tendency to seek services for children
by tying various other family and social problems to a child abuse or
neglect allegation when the issue was not really one of abuse and
neglect ... Reports of suspected child abuse and neglect to
state or local child abuse reporting centers reflected a broadened
perception of concern beyond what heretofore were considered to be the
guidelines for reporting. ... The clear trend was to seek help for
families and children by using the Child Protective Services system as
the path to help . . . Where abuse and neglect becomes too
broadly defined only as a means to make children and families eligible
for services, serious problems develop (Cameron, 1988, p.324-325).
This clouding of the mission of child protection is suggested as a
cause of the increased level of in substantiated reports in recent
years. In some states services to a family are not offered until there
has been decision by a worker to substantiate a claim of abuse (Flango,
1991). It is also likely to lead to improper and irresponsible
intrusion into families and individual civil rights (Cameron, 1988).
Now almost all of the states have central registries 0 record reports
of child abuse. These data banks are claimed to have a number of
functions, including case diagnosis, case management, program
monitoring, research, and program planning (Besharov, 1990).
Possible benefits from a central monitoring function accrue from several
variables discussed by Besharov 1978) but are often overlooked.
Many protection workers have little or no training beyond a brief
orientation session. The burnout rate is high and therefore the
turnover of workers is rapid. One study reported that less than
20% felt a child protective worker's role was to protect the child
(Besharov, 1978). Although workers have considerable difficulty
flaking the difficult decisions they are required to make, in most
states there is no review of the worker's decisions. A consequence
is that difficult cases may lever get closed but just fade away as
caseworkers change, families disappear, memories weaken, and
bureaucratic shuffles obscure the reality (Besharov, [978). A
central registry could help by providing close and accurate monitoring
of investigations and delivery of services. However, as Whiting
(1977) observes, this requires that those doing the reporting and
entering of data do so promptly, accurately, and completely.
Experience thus far suggests this is not likely to be the case.
However, now the emphasis has shifted to the recording of information
about the accused perpetrator rather than the abused child and the
family. The proposed National Child Protection Act of 1991 would record
only information about the indicted suspect or convicted perpetrator.
The aim is to prevent the reprehensible abuser from ever having contact
with children who could then be abused. Senator Thurmond, perhaps
unwittingly depicting the first expansion of the proposed national
registry, included a much broader population of persons who might be
included than the proposed act itself:
The measure will assist in identifying convicted child abusers who
prey upon children by seeking employment or other activities where
youngsters can be taken advantage of like day care centers or
scout troops . . . that those working with children in organized
activities do not have criminal records as child abusers or
perpetrators of other serious crimes (S 16752).
The information the proposed national registry must include to
perform the required "background check crime" and thus be able
to prevent those indicted or with criminal records from having contact
with children is defined as follows:
. . . means a child abuse crime, murder, manslaughter, aggravated
assault, kidnapping, arson, sexual assault, domestic violence, incest,
indecent exposure, prostitution, promotion of prostitution, and a
felony offense involving the use or distribution of a controlled
substance (S 16750).
The number of citizens who may be indicted or convicted of that
roster of crimes is enormous. They would all have to be included
in the national registry in order for the basic step of the background
check crime to be done. The proposed act also requires that three
years after the enactment of the act, the system shall be 80% complete
for all entries of activity within the last five years.
The ostensible reason for this massive tracking and surveillance of
citizens is to prevent convicted criminals who prey upon children from
getting jobs in day care centers. Senator Biden claims that data
provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee showed that in six states in
just the past year 6,200 convicted criminals sought employment as child
care providers. We have not had access to these data but it seems
improbable on the face of it. Most convicted criminals are
men. Relatively few men apply for jobs as child care
providers. Salaries for child care providers are low, mostly at
entry levels, and there is little desirable about such jobs. It
simply seems unlikely that 6,200 convicted child abusers would have
strong enough overdetermined behavior to actively seek such a job.
While it may be the case that most convicted criminals have some
intellectual limitations, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure
out that if once convicted of child abuse it is not very bright to seek
a job taking care of children. There is no evidence that we are
aware of showing a significant correlation between crimes like arson,
drug abuse, embezzlement, murder and child abuse. The conventional
wisdom about prison populations is that child abusers are the most
despised of prisoners and are in mortal danger because other prisoners
often attack them, rape them, and kill them.
While we strongly disagree with the methodology, the criteria, and
the findings in Finkelhor, Williams, and Burns' (1988) study of sexual
abuse in day care centers (see Coleman, 1989, and Wakefield &
Underwager, in press, for details), their estimate of the frequency of
abuse in day care centers is likely the highest possible interpretation
of the meaning of available data. In 1985 there were 229,000
licensed day-care programs in the country. Much family day care is
unlicensed. Trying to get some estimate of the frequency, the
Finkelhor study used the figure of 61,000 licensed day-care
centers. A center is a day care program with more than six
The Finkelhor et al. (1988) figure of 187 centers reported and
substantiated for sexual abuse yields an estimate of 30.7 centers with
sexual abuse per 10,000 centers. The number of children allegedly
sexually abused in day care centers is reported as 5.5 children per
10,000 enrolled in day care centers. This would lead to 825 abused
children out of the 1,500,000 children in day care centers in
1985. Given the massive difficulties in the methodology of this
study, particularly in the definition of substantiation, this is apt to
be a greatly inflated estimate.
Nevertheless, this is much less than the number of children sexually
abused in their families, according to Finkelhor et al. (1988).
The number of children sexually abused each year in their families is
estimated to be 8.9 per 10,000. Of the 21,300,000 children under
six in American families in 1985 this suggests 18,957 are sexually
abused each year in their families.
Data by Russell and Clifford (1987) suggests a much lower estimate of
children sexually abused in day care centers compared to Finkelhor et
al. (1988). Russell and Clifford report an analysis of all
complaints for one year (1982-1983) alleging abuse in day care centers
in North Carolina. Of the 424 total complaints received, 70
(16.5%) alleged abuse or neglect. Of these 30 were substantiated
as child abuse or neglect. Of these substantiated cases the legal
system sought action in 6%, or 2 cases. In the other cases of
substantiated abuse it was not severe enough to require more than a
warning letter or citation on a monitoring form. There is no
report of any instances of sexual abuse in their analysis.
We can agree with the concluding statements by Finkelhor et al.
... However, the impression that day care constitutes some
especially risky environment is probably an illusion ... The
numbers themselves, however, do not indicate some particularly
alarming problem with day care itself ... But at the same time,
the problem should not be taken out of context. The high
emotions that surround day care and sexual abuse should not be allowed
to generate and precipitate poorly considered policies that might be
damaging to both causes in the long run (p.25).
Given the fact that actual number of children sexually abused in day
care centers is apt to be low, and to be much less than the number
sexually abused in their families, the imposition of a cumbersome and
expensive bureaucracy which is questionable in terms of civil liberties
is poorly considered and ill founded. It appears quite possible
that the proposed legislation for the National Child Protection Act,
1991, will produce large unintended consequences (Cohen, 1988) that will
damage citizens, parents, and children. The Senate may well be the
victim of the current practice of encouraging and causing social change
and political action by the use of advocacy numbers (Gilbert, 1991).
... advocacy numbers, figures that embody less an effort at
scientific understanding than an attempt to persuade the public that a
problem is vastly larger than commonly recognized. Advocacy
numbers are derived not through outright deceit but through a more
subtle process of distortion. Under the veil of social science,
rigorous research methods are employed to measure a problem defined so
broadly that it forms a vessel into which almost any human difficulty
can be poured. Some argue that efforts of this sort can serve a
useful purpose, because social problems are sometimes larger than
commonly recognized. And since the media gravitate toward
alarming numbers, a bit of definitional stretching may be necessary to
bring the problem into public view. Among those who practice
social advocacy, this is known as "consciousness raising"
and is deemed a respectable function of advocacy numbers (Gilbert,
When there is a possibility that a major change in the way citizens
are treated by the central government may be based upon such advocacy
numbers, caution is well advised. The unintended consequence of
seeking the noble goal of protecting children may well turn out to be
oppression of large numbers of citizens, many of whom may not, in fact,
be guilty of any crime.
Experience with State Central Registries
Does the experience with state central registries give any
information about the possible performance of a national registry?
Is it likely to accomplish the goal of protecting children? At the
very least, the experience with state central registries raises serious
questions about the prospects of a national registry. For this
reason the two articles, by Petersen and Whalen, in this issue reporting
direct personal experience with central registries are important
Whiting (1977) evaluated the Maryland central registry as ineffective
for tracking cases, assisting in diagnosis, or identifying service needs.
She does see a statistical profile of abused and neglected children
useful for program development. However, the proposed national
registry provides information about those accused and convicted.
Here the purpose expressed by Senator Thurmond is prosecution. The
inclusion in the Act of the National Center for Prosecution of Child
Abuse (a private, nongovernmental, nonprofit subsidiary of the National
District Attorneys Association) as one of the agencies states must be in
contact with suggests the emphasis is on prosecution. Since their
first public announcements in 1985, the avowed goal of this Center is to
prosecute, not rehabilitate, not protect children, and not unify the
The NCPCA advocates". . . the handling of child abuse cases by
treating these cases as serious crimes. Prosecutors must demand
that child abuse be viewed first and foremost as a criminal act and
that treatment alternatives for the abuser are secondary to punishment
(APRI, 1986, p. 1). The NCPCA promises to lead a national campaign to
reform "the excessive and unnecessarily wide latitude given
defendants in attempting to protect their constitutional rights ...
"(APRI, p.1) (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988, p. 20.)
Even in the initial presentation of this legislation to establish a
national registry it is already evident that the goal of protecting
children is being used as a rationale to get congress to pass the bill
but that there is far more at stake than the laudable goal of protecting
children from predatory pedophiles. Nobody can argue against
protecting children. However, once the process is set up and the
national registry established, it appears highly probable that it will
be used for other purposes, principally prosecution and
punishment. The history of the involvement and activities of the
National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse since their initial
announcement in 1986 demonstrates the effort to abridge, contain, and
limit the civil rights and civil liberties of citizens. The
potential for injustice is understood by an English judge, Justice
Waite, in his ruling on a case in Norfolk County:
Mr. Justice Waite said that the Child Abuse Register is "in
essence a blacklist, and as such it also has dangerous potential as an
instrument of injustice or oppression" ... The Conference
recorded "a solemn finding of guilt after a brief and one sided
investigation" ... the council adopted a "dangerous
slipshod" approach in recording names as "known suspected
abusers" on the register NLJ, 1989. p. 283).
An analysis of 48,499 reports submitted to the central registry of
Colorado concludes that contact with human service professionals is the
factor most powerfully associated with being reported for child
abuse. While there are understood to be many more families,
children, and parents who may need services and assistance, if they are
not in contact with the system there is no report. It is those who
come into contact with the bureaucracy, however, it may happen, who are
on the central registries (Fryer, 1990).
The controversy over central registries does not center around
protecting children nor the reality that gaps in services require more
funding. Rather it is the issue of substantiation rates.
Although some claim substantiation rates are rising (Finkelhor, 1990),
the available data suggest both a wide variation among states and an
average of 40-45% substantiation of reported abuse (Flango, 1991;
Flango, 1988). There are a number of factors which may affect
substantiation rates but the one of most concern and importance is the
level of proof required. Here 25 states use a standard of some
credible evidence, 12 require credible evidence, and 12 require a
preponderance of evidence (Flango, 1991). What this comes down to,
as researchers and legal scholars have defined varying levels of proof,
is that no state requires more than a subjective sense that the abuse is
at 51% probability level (Faigman, & Baglioni, 1988; Kagehiro, 1990)
to include a person on a central registry as an abuser. Only one
state, Washington, includes a category of a conviction as the National
Child Protection Act, 1991, currently requires (Flango, 1991). No
state has a category of indicted.
The confusion generated by this situation of divergent standards and
categories is most likely to be resolved by an administrative,
bureaucratic decision that protects the interests of the bureaucracy
rather than serves the liberty interests of citizens. An example
was the decision of Florida administrators to move all cases in their
"confirmed" central registry category, where there is an
appeal process, to the category "indicated." Those
persons named in the central registry as "indicated" have no
appeal process available. This serves to ease the burden of the
system but hardly advances the rights of individuals. There seems
to be a high probability that any national registry will include large
numbers of persons where the decision to put them on a central registry
has been based on something less than conviction or indictment.
An evaluation of the performance of child welfare agencies (Schwartz,
1991) to protect children cite alarming observations and opinions about
the child protection system. It is breaking down under the weight
of increased responsibility and decreased funding. It isgenerating
casualties who wind up as homeless children:
. . . many public child welfare agencies are deteriorating and
appear unable to provide children an families with services they need
or are entitled to. The increase in child abuse and neglect cases appears to have occurred at
a time when "child welfare agencies were experiencing high staff
turnover, particularly protective staff, and a decreasing proportion of
professionally trained workers" (Office of Human Development
Services, 1988, p. c3), and when federal and state fiscal resources
allocated toward this problem have been shrinking (Children's Defense
Fund, 1988b)(Schwartz, 1991, p.191).
The practical consequences of this situation are that the basic,
and most often unreviewed, decision which puts a person on a state
central registry as a substantiated child abuser will be made by the
least experienced, least trained, least professional, lowest paid, and
most harried workers in the system. Investigations will be as quick as
possible. Decisions will be reached as quickly as possible on the
least amount of information. There will be significant pressure to
clear cases, keep caseloads as small as possible, and keep supervisors
happy. Under these pressures, the level of false positives can be
expected to rise. The relationship between state central registries
and the national central registry is somewhat unclear but the national
registry cannot be expected to be much better than the information
supplied to it.
Flango (1991) also reports that substantiation rates show a linear
relationship in expected directions when these factors are
investigated. The higher the standard of proof, the lower the
substantiation rate. Only 27 states give any notice that a person has
been placed on a central registry. Where notice is given
substantiation rates are lower than in the states where no notice is
given. A due process index shows that the higher the level of due
process, the lower the substantiation while the lower the due process
the higher the substantiation rate is. These findings, though Flango
(1991) reports they are not statistically significant, are enough to
warrant caution about the consequences of a national registry for
individual rights and liberties of children and adults. If a large
number of persons are listed in central registries who should not be
there, that is, if central registries have significant proportions of
false positives persons listed as abusers when they did not abuse a
child then the registry cannot avoid being an oppressive system that
The incidence and prevalence of reports of child abuse are related
to socioeconomic class. The lower the socioeconomic class, the higher
the level of reports and the occurrence of child abuse (Cicchetti,
1989; Finkelhor, 1984; Gelles, 1990; Landis, 1956; NCCAN, 1981;
Nightingale & Walker, 1991; Pelton, 1978; Steinberg, Cataiano
& Dooley, 1981). Since child abuse became a national issue in the
late 1960s politicians have attempted to ignore this evidence because
it is politically unappealing and likely to set off a political storm
(Finkelhor, 1986; Nelson, 1984).
The result of this fact together with the establishment of a
national registry as well as functioning state registries will be a
disproportionate number of poor people, lower socioeconomic class
individuals, and the least capable and functional of our citizens
being included as child abuse perpetrators when they are not. This
will happen simply because the poor cannot cope with the demands of
By definition, the poor and disadvantaged have neither the
resources nor the necessary skills to cope with the requirements for a
review and an appeal. The proposed National Child Protection Act,
1991, speaks of procedures to challenge and correct inaccurate
background check information. It then leaves it up to each state to
establish those procedures to challenge inaccurate information. It
also leaves it up to the states to give a prompt determination from an
authorized agency as to the validity of the challenge. The present
procedures for review and appeal set up by the states do not inspire
confidence that there will be any better circumstances for the poor
Setting time limits of a few days or even weeks from the date of
written notice that a person has been placed in the central registry
as an identified perpetrator imposes a demand for a level of skill,
emotional strength, and organizational skills that the poor and
disadvantaged simply do not have. When the penalty for not filing for
a review in the time limit is permanent waiver of the right to review,
many poor are going to be permanently on a central registry simply
because they cannot meet the requirements of the rules. Poor people
who may be functionally illiterate, who may lack skills of meeting
deadlines, keeping appointments, and getting to work on time, and who
may not have the money for a first class stamp or to make a phone
call, are not going to be able to comply.
Challenging information contained in a central registry file takes
a long time and requires an ability to persevere in the face of
frustration, stress, and extreme energy drain. Maintaining commitment,
emotional investment, and focus for such long periods of time is going
to be beyond the capacities of the majority of the poor and
disadvantaged. Indeed, it will be beyond the capacities of most of the
population. It is not, however, beyond the capacities of the
bureaucracy. A case will pass through the system to the end no matter
how many workers may be assigned to it, what the costs are, or what
the truth is. Petersen, in this issue, reports how, on the day before
his expungement hearing, after two years of effort, the state agreed
to expunge his name from the central registry. This could have been
done much earlier since no new information was developed during the
two years, but it was not until the agency was compelled to do so by a
deadline that the action was taken.
The poor do not have money to hire lawyers. Public defenders or
legal aid attorneys are not likely to be able to take such cases.
Private attorneys are not likely to view such cases as appropriate for
pro-bono work when there is so much more immediate need for criminal
defenses. The unavailability of legal counsel to the poor will result
in more of the poor remaining on a central registry.
The process of "labeling" has been the subject of
significant research. When a label is applied to an individual, the
classification decision is likely powerfully affected by variables
other than truth or accuracy (Mercer, 1973). The poor have been shown
to be overrepresented in social control institutions, not because of
the facts but rather because of the inferences of the labeler
(Gingrich, 1978; Lofland, 1969; Newberger & De Vos, 1988). Characteristics of the labeler, experience, personality, motivation,
cognitions, values and beliefs have been shown to affect the label
applied to an individual and frequent mislabeling (Gingrich, 1978;
The consequences to the poor of any mislabeling are not limited to
effects on possible employers or working in a setting involving
children. Supreme Court Justice Black observed in a dissent that a
person accused of abuse "is charged with conduct failure to care
properly for her children which may be viewed as reprehensible and
morally wrong by a majority of society" (Black, 1971). Once an
agency has labeled a person as an abuser, other agencies accept the
label as real and treat the family or individual accordingly (Parke,
1977). Social workers talk to one another. In at least one situation
we have knowledge of, even though a report had been expunged, the
social worker in that state informed a social worker in another state
of the expunged allegation and it was then used in the second state to
substantiate an allegation. Court appearances and social worker visits
communicate the label of abuser to others. Increased alienation and
social isolation is invariably the consequence of this labeling.
Fraiberg (1978) wrote:
The label is not a diagnosis. It is a mailing address. Once the
social agencies have placed this . . . the destination is
virtually certain. The family is routed to a network of social
agencies, sometimes to four or five at once . . . The next address
will be the court. After the court there may be a new address for
the baby and a new address for the mother (p.96).
The consequences of abuse investigations and public announcements
are devastating to families and children. Job loss, need for public
assistance, marital dissolution, foster care, changes in residence,
loss of income, children harassed at school, are only some of the
things that happen. The entire family is adversely affected.
Following their research study of actual families, Tyler
and Brassard (1984) recommend as the first step to improve the system to
ban the publication of convictions for child sexual abuse. Luza and
Ortiz (1990) show the level of control by shame that social workers
exercise over falsely accused families. Buckey, Buckey, and Buckey
(1990) describe some of the consequences of being publicly identified as
abusers during the course of the McMartin trial.
There are no empirical quantifiable data suggesting a differential
rate of child abuse between whites and blacks. There are empirical
data showing a differential rate of reporting for child abuse. Blacks
are more readily and more often reported for child abuse than whites.
Whites more often are unreported when there is a basis for a report to
be made. The impact of racial factors on a central registry is likely
to produce a disproportionate number of racial minorities being
labeled and identified as abusers. The number of false positives,
persons identified as abusers when they are not, will include a
disproportionate number of minority groups and a disproportionate
number of white and rich perpetrators who actually abuse children will
be missed (Eckenrode, Powers, Doris, Munsch, & Bolger, 1988;
Hampton & Newberger, undated; Lujan DeBruyn, May, & Bird,
1989; Newberger, 1983; Rabb, 1981; Tan, Ray, & Cate, 1991; Wyatt,
While there are potential benefits from central registries and a
national registry, the history of state central registries, the
demonstrated relationship between worker variables and decision
making, the demonstrated relationship between poverty, race, and
minority status, and the known history of bureaucracies make it likely
that the outcome of registries will be oppression rather than
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|* Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield are psychologists at the
Institute for Psychological Therapies,
5263 130th Street East,
Northfield, MN 55057-4880.