The only thing that's certain about the Central Registry of Child Protection is that it's not clear whether it's serving its intended purpose, according to a four-month evaluation by the Office of the State Auditor.
The Central Registry was created by the state legislature more than thirty years ago to help authorities keep track of victims of child abuse and to monitor the abusers as they moved from one place to another. At first, only doctors, law enforcement and human-services officials had access to it, but over the years it evolved into an employment-screening resource for state-licensed daycare centers, residential child-care facilities and child-placement agencies.
Since its scope expanded, however, it has become a cumbersome system, with 114,000 people currently listed. But because people don't have to have been charged with or convicted of a crime to be added to the list -- and because many may be completely innocent -- the Central Registry has been criticized for weighing the potential harm to children far more than the rights of adults ("The Accused," November 1).
For that reason and many others, the auditor's report states that now is the time to re-examine the very function of the Central Registry. "The delicate balance between protecting vulnerable populations and allowing due process for alleged perpetrators has not been maintained," reads the report, which was publicly released on December 3. "Because of ongoing issues with the Registry, we believe the basic purpose and intent of the Central Registry should be challenged."
Since the last audit of the Central Registry, in 1990, not much has changed: There are still people on the list who should not be there, as well as people who should be on the registry but are not. And despite a law that passed last year requiring the names of individuals acquitted of child-abuse charges to be removed from the registry, some of those people remain on the list. Of the 1,589 people on a state Judicial Department database of individuals acquitted of child-abuse charges after June 2000, 191 were still on the Central Registry. When the auditors reviewed a statewide database of 1,136 people who had been convicted of child abuse or neglect, they found that 305 of them were not on the Central Registry.
"Additionally, we matched a sample of 48 registered sex offenders who had perpetrated sexual crimes against children on the state's Convicted Sex Offender Site with the Registry database and found 19 (40 percent) of those registered sex offenders were not listed on the Registry," the auditors reported.
There is also a limbo category on the registry called "status pending" that hasn't been adequately monitored, according to the audit. When someone appeals a listing, registry staffers are supposed to obtain the investigative file from the county that reported the person and review it to make sure the evidence warrants placing him or her on the list; if it does, he or she is added to the registry as one whose status is pending the outcome of a hearing rather than as a perpetrator. Of the 1,202 cases in the status-pending category as of May 21, the auditors found that seventeen shouldn't have been there: Seven should have had their names removed, and ten should have been listed as perpetrators.
The auditors also discovered inaccuracies in the registry that years of past legislation have failed to correct. Alleged perpetrators' birth dates were missing from 7,600 records, and Social Security numbers were missing from 46,000 records. Social Security numbers are not required for a person to be entered into the Central Registry database, however, and thus "the ability to use the data to identify perpetrators is limited," the audit report states. "In addition, the ability to use the data to expunge individuals when they should be expunged is also hampered by database errors."
The audit found that information about the nature and severity of abuse was absent from 1,200 files and that the date of the alleged incident was missing from 1,300 files. There were name misspellings, incorrect Social Security numbers, and even the type of abuse was sometimes wrong. Some of the inaccuracies are the fault of the database itself, while others are the fault of county caseworkers. "All 15 county [human services] departments we interviewed stated that they do not review the Registry for accuracy," the auditors wrote.
"I'm really disappointed," audit committee member Senator Norma Anderson, who has carried past Central Registry legislation, told representatives of the Colorado Department of Human Services at the meeting. "The accuracy of this has to be the most important thing you look at."
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The auditors came up with fourteen recommendations for improving the registry, including training county caseworkers on how to correctly report abuse and neglect cases; working with other state agencies such as the Judicial Department and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to make sure that convicted abusers get listed; working with other agencies to make sure that people acquitted of abuse charges get removed from the list; and screening cases that have been in the status-pending category for more than two years. The CDHS, which administers the Central Registry, agreed with all of the auditors' recommendations and pledged to make those improvements.
But the CDHS agreed to similar recommendations eleven years ago, and many of the same problems persist today. With that in mind, the auditors also suggested some alternatives to the current Central Registry, such as only tracking alleged perpetrators who have had contact with law enforcement -- be it an arrest, charge or conviction -- or altering the registry so that it contains only the names of those convicted of a child-abuse crime.
"The usefulness of the audit will be determined by the motivation they have to change the system," says attorney Rowe Stayton, who has represented or consulted with approximately 100 people who have been placed on the Central Registry. "If they see the problem but ignore it, we'll be back with the same old system. I'm waiting to see how they interpret the results."
Any major changes, though, will require new legislation. CDHS Executive Director Marva Hammons started the process of examining the Central Registry in August, when she assembled a work group to look at "what the CRCP has evolved to and what it should be." The CDHS will issue a report on the work group's findings by February.