Federal registry to track child abusers stalls for more than a decade
By: Megan Luther, Jill Riepenhoff, and Lee Zurik
Originally Published: April 29, 2019
(InvestigateTV) – Heaven Watkins loved to tell stories.
“She would talk your ear off,” Heaven’s aunt Sheronda Orridge said.
The proof, Heaven’s “Best Storyteller Award,” sits framed in Orridge’s Minnesota living room. It rests near school and birthday photos of Heaven, forever an 11-year-old.
One evening last year, Heaven, who had cerebral palsy, brought a toy to the bathtub and later, soiled her diaper. Those events set off the girl’s mother, Latoya Smith, and her boyfriend Demont Harris, Smith confessed. That night they brutally beat Heaven to death, according to court records.
Smith had a history of mistreating Heaven in the family’s home state of Minnesota and lost custody of her in 2015 for 18 months. A year after getting Heaven back, Smith moved to Virginia.
The abuse continued.
Heaven was hospitalized and needed a skin graft on her right hand after Harris held it in hot water, Smith admitted to detectives. Virginia case workers allowed the girl to stay in the home. Months later, Heaven was dead.
If Virginia had known about Smith’s history in Minnesota, “Heaven would still be alive,” Orridge said.
But tracking down a parent’s abuse history in other states is laborious and sometimes impossible for child protection workers. There is no national child abuse registry nor an interstate communication system that would allow investigators to easily check a parent’s history.
Congress passed a 2006 law to create a national registry, but the federal government failed to follow through — forcing child protection workers to sometimes rely on abusers themselves to voluntarily give up prior history with authorities.
“But there’s nothing that compels a parent to share that information. It’s not in their interest,” said Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance based in Washington, D.C. “A savvy parent who has been through the system isn’t going to say a word.”
Moving from trouble
It’s common for abusers to move.
Multiple children have died with families who had histories of abuse or neglect then later moved across state lines, InvestigateTV has found. And a lack of interstate communication, CPS workers say, has often left them in the dark.
After losing custody of all four of her children in Louisiana, Lisa Lilly, who struggled with drug abuse, moved to Arkansas. She had a baby girl — born with drugs in her system, her boyfriend Bobby Gipson told police. Nine months later, the baby was found dead in a motel littered with trash and drug paraphernalia, according to the 2017 police report.
Lilly and Gipson, the baby’s father, pleaded guilty to endangering a child — a misdemeanor.
Lilly declined to be interviewed but sent a message through Facebook.
She said she had a history with drugs: “I have been sober 2 years thanks to God my family and I have been through enough pain God has redeemed me and is restoring my life.”
Her infant died from natural causes due to croup, Lilly said. Arkansas state officials listed her daughter’s death as an abuse or neglect child fatality due to “inadequate supervision.”
Toni Baker and her boyfriend Steven Killion, Sr. lived in New Jersey before moving their family to Pennsylvania. The couple had a history with CPS in other states, but their two other children were not removed until after the suffocation death of their 2-year-old son.
Six children died last year when one of their mothers drove off a cliff in California. The family took off days after Washington officials started investigating allegations of abuse and neglect, according to news reports. There were also abuse reports in two other states. In April, officials ruled the deaths as murder-suicide.
For more than a decade, federal law has required that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services give child welfare workers tools to check the histories of families suspected of abuse or neglect.
In 2006, The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act — named after the murdered 6-year-old whose family pushed for more child protections — was signed into law. The act is best known for establishing the national public sex offender registry, but the legislation also offered two other programs to help those investigating child abuse.
One tool allows child welfare workers to access national crime databases through the FBI. Only half of the states participate, according to Bureau.
The law also called for creating a national child abuse registry that never came to be. Vague legislation, logistical obstacles and a lack of money has halted that safeguard.
Myriad of obstacles
Every state keeps its own child abuse registry. In most of them, it’s a non-public database typically checked for foster placements, adoptions and employment background checks for those who work with children.
Unlike sex offenders, child abusers are not typically required to register their new address when they move, making it difficult for child welfare workers to keep track of them.
The plan under the 2006 law was to consolidate the states’ information into a nationwide registry accessible to CPS workers.
But a HHS feasibility study found a myriad of obstacles to achieving that goal including cost, inconsistencies among state registries and due-process concerns.
Multiple lawsuits have challenged the legality of states’ child abuse registries. One of the first was a class-action lawsuit objecting to New York’s registry and its low burden of proof. The courts agreed it was unconstitutional, and the attorney on the case, Carolyn Kubitschek, went on to refute several other child abuse registries, which she refers to as the “black list.”
“The problem is that it’s easy to get on and it’s very hard to get off,” she said.
Unlike sex offender registries, a person does not need to be convicted or charged with child abuse to be on a state’s registry. An allegation of abuse or neglect can put someone on the list without their knowledge in some states.
Sometimes, even when the claim is unfounded, it can take years to get off.
In Alabama, a subject of an unsubstantiated claim has to wait five years to request an expungement from the registry.
Even if the states adhered to uniformed registry standards, the wording of the 2006 statute prevents a national registry from being effective, according to HHS findings.
For example, Congress only required including a perpetrator’s name and the nature of the abuse case, leaving out vital information like date of birth, address, and social security number that would prevent misidentifying people with the same name. It’s also voluntary, so states don’t have to participate if they don’t want to — resulting in a partial registry.
And then there’s cost. HHS estimates it would take $4 million to develop the registry and up to $6 million annually to maintain it. That does not include the states’ expense to participate. The national sex offender registry took $1 million to develop and another $1 million to maintain each year.
Child advocates recognize the hurdles and the massive political undertaking needed to set up a national registry: combining states’ registries into a single database and facing allegations of being big brother.
But advocates point out the high cost of not moving forward.
“This country has made no dent whatsoever in child abuse fatalities in the last 20 years,” said the National Children’s Alliance’s Huizar. “If we are serious about reducing child abuse fatalities, we are going to have to do something that we haven’t done before and something that takes a lot of political will and something that’s very challenging to do. But where is the champion for that?”
A decade of loss
Search by state to see how many child abuse and neglect fatalities were reported in a 10-year period. The data reflects the Federal Fiscal Year, October 1-September 30, and is published annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; however, as InvestigateTV has reported, these numbers are likely an undercount.
A few federal lawmakers have expressed interest, but none have put forward a concrete registry plan.
In March, a House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing on child abuse and neglect. Child Maltreatment Solutions Network Associate Director Yo Jackson testified that it’s vital for states to start communicating.
“Not only do they not speak to each other, they often are adversarial in terms of sharing information,” she said.
Research shows that if children are abused, their chances of being victimized again increase exponentially. Moving to another state doesn’t decrease a child’s risk factors, according to Jackson.
“Without sharing that information we set ourselves backwards in terms of helping children in the country,” she said.
Privacy vs protection
Pennsylvania toddler Steven Killion Jr. died in 2017 after suffocating from a bag over his head that his parents left in his room, according to a state report. Both parents, who’ve had a history with the state’s child protective services, were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and are serving time behind bars.
Reviewing his death, state human services department found a “major deficiency” in the case: Pennsylvania social workers hadn’t known about the family’s extensive abuse history in other states. They also had not asked.
Had caseworkers known about the Killion family’s history in other states, perhaps they could have done more, the agency’s report concluded. Perhaps the 2-year-old would still be alive today.
An interstate database of child abuse histories would have helped, the report concluded.
In some states, lawmakers are trying to fill the gap left by federal inaction.
In March, Virginia’s governor signed Heaven’s Law, which requires officials to check a caregiver’s abuse history from other states for at least five years back during an investigation of suspected abuse or neglect.
“If Department of Social Services had realized she had been removed from her mother’s custody in another state, she would have been alive today,” said Virginia lawmaker Mike Mullin, a Democrat from Newport News, VA. He authored Heaven’s Law, believed to be the first of its kind.
If Virginia would have checked Heaven’s history in Minnesota, case workers would have learned about the extensive abuse she suffered.
Court records show a history of neglect. Heaven was missing school and officials believed she was being sexually abused. A Minnesota judge removed Heaven and her three siblings from the home in 2015. She spent the next 18 months with Orridge and making up for multiple missed doctor and therapy appointments.
Virginia law prevents the Department of Social Services from talking about what the agency did or didn’t do in Heaven’s case. The agency only said through a spokeswoman: “This has been the best practice in our child protective services system and now it is codified to ensure it happens in all cases.”
Virginia officials would not say whether CPS had followed its best practice in Heaven’s case. Minnesota child protection officials, citing state law, also declined to say if they communicated with Virginia about Heaven’s past.
Checking out-of-state histories of a family is not a routine practice, CPS workers told InvestigateTV.
Heaven’s home state is also working on a law. Minnesota state Rep. Rena Moran, connected with Mullin when drafting her own Heaven’s legislation. Moran, who also works for Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota, is proposing state research on sharing children maltreatment data between states.
Moran, a Democrat who represents the St. Paul area, knows Orridge and had seen Heaven in the community.
But Moran is hesitant of a federal effort, fearing a national registry might mislabel an innocent parent as a child abuser.
“We want to make sure that we are not hurting other people too in the process of protecting kids. That’s truly a hard statement to make, from someone who’s a child advocate,” she said.
Heaven’s bill is currently pending in the Minnesota state Senate. One of the concerns is privacy, which Heaven’s aunt Sheronda Orridge heard about when testifying at the committee hearing. “Who cares, if a child’s life gets saved?” she said later.
“It just amazes me that everybody is thinking about the parent’s rights and nobody is thinking about the children,” she said.
Days before she died, Heaven was given only bread and water as punishment. Her little body had scars on her back. She suffered 24 rib fractures.
Heaven’s mother pleaded guilty to felony homicide. Her boyfriend’s trial was scheduled for May.
Orridge continues to push for Minnesota Heaven’s Law. She wants changes in the child protection system — for Heaven not to have died in vain.
“She loved helping people and this would help a lot of children.”
Graphics and illustrations by Jamie Grey.
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