Op-ed: Clearing the names of Connecticut child abusers threatens safety [New Haven Register]

July 28, 2014

By State Sen. Len Fasano | NH Register

Protecting the safety and wellbeing of children is an essential government duty that must always remain a top priority. Unfortunately, Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) has not been living up to that responsibility.

During the first five months of this year, 11 children under the supervision of DCF died. Of those, six deaths were caused by abuse or neglect.

Yet, during this same period of time, DCF was busy lobbying for a way to help known abusers remove their names from the Child Abuse and Neglect Registry. When the legislature failed to approve such a policy shift, DCF implemented a new policy on its own; giving child abusers on the state’s registry an opportunity to remove their names just two years after committing acts of abuse or neglect.

The Child Abuse and Neglect Registry serves an important public purpose. Schools, day care centers, state agencies and others who provide direct services to children consult the registry to make sure that they do not hire people with a known history of child abuse.

I have serious concerns about DCF’s adoption of a new registry policy that directly impacts child safety with no legislative approval, no opportunity for public comment, and apparently no notice to the victims who may now see their abuser removed from the registry and allowed to work with children.

It is shocking that this policy change would be a priority for DCF when there is clearly so much more that needs to be done to better protect the children under their care.

Every person placed on the registry has been investigated and found to have committed acts of abuse or neglect. Even then, they are not recommended for placement on the registry unless DCF also finds that they pose an ongoing risk to the safety of children. Each person also has the right to numerous appeals at the administrative level and in court. This right is extended even to those who were placed on the registry before the appeals process was enacted. Thus, no one should be placed on the registry simply for leaving their child alone for a short time with no harm done. Every person on the registry not only committed acts of abuse or neglect but was found to pose a danger to children.

When legislation concerning registry name removal was presented, it was met with bipartisan opposition. Initially, a bill was proposed to allow individuals on the registry to seek name removal after five years. That was extended to 10 years in an effort to garner more support, but the bill still failed to pass. Today, we see a complete disregard for the legislature’s decision, as DCF is now implementing a policy that allows name removal a mere two years after committing abuse.

Adopting a policy to completely remove someone from the registry with no legislative approval or public input is not only a gamble with children’s health and safety, but also an insult to the democratic process. Surely the public, parents, victims of abuse and their advocates, deserved an opportunity to comment and be heard before such a policy was broadly implemented.

DCF officials now allege that this new policy has actually already been in place for years. However, this was not mentioned at any point in the four years that DCF attempted to get legislative approval for this policy. It was also never made clear that DCF has removed names from the list in the past. This attempt to either mask the truth before, or mislead us now, directly threatens government transparency and public trust.

DCF Commissioner, Joette Katz also argues that the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act (UAPA) requires her to hear requests for removal from the registry. I believe this is wrong as a matter of law and policy. Even if the UAPA applied in these circumstances, it does not require the commissioner to hear and decide requests for removal. At best, it allows her to do so if she chooses. By choosing to hear and grant such requests she is making a policy choice that violates the statute, undermines the will of the legislature and threatens children’s safety.

Child abuse and neglect is a serious and growing problem in Connecticut. Over the past 18 months, there has been an average of more than one child a month dying from abuse in our state. While Commissioner Katz has pledged to make policy changes that encourage doctors to report signs of abuse earlier, at the same time she has also championed a plan to erase the records of known abusers. These efforts and these policy changes are completely inconsistent.

To allow individuals to have their names removed from the child abuse registry so that they can work in day care centers, schools or other settings with children is horrible and unsafe public policy that undermines the very purpose of the registry: to protect children from known abusers. I cannot understand why DCF, the primary public servant tasked with protecting Connecticut’s children, would support such a dangerous plan.