Online shaming of people who haven’t even been charged with a crime

The Department of Children’s Services shares the names of people who it believes have committed child abuse or neglect – but not necessarily charged – on a Public child-abuser list in Tennessee. These individuals don’t even have a chance to respond to the charges if they are never brought, but their lives will be ruined.

Kudos to The Commercial Appeal for standing against this online shaming trend. The article can be found here.

Putting people who haven’t been charged with a crime on public child-abuser list doesn’t seem right

This may sound strange coming from an institution that consistently fights for the public’s right to know, transparency in government and access to public records.

However, we are uncomfortable with the decision by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to share the names of people who it believes have committed child abuse or neglect — but not necessarily prosecuted — with another online, publicly accessible registry of abusers of adults maintained by the state Department of Health.

Far be it from us to argue for closed public records, but there are some things that should not be public, and to release possible life-altering information on people who have not been charged with a crime seems like a step too far.

For years, DCS has kept its own internal, confidential registry of people it has “substantiated” for child abuse or neglect but has, as required by state law, worked with such institutions as schools, child care centers and foster care providers to verify whether potential new employees are on it.

State law prohibits people on the DCS registry from being hired as teachers and child care providers and from being foster parents.

Now, however, based on a new review of a 1987 law that predates the 1996 creation of DCS, Children’s Services will make available names from its registry for inclusion on the separate “abuse registry” maintained by the Health Department.

That registry is, by law, on the Health Department’s website. Anyone can enter a name to see if it is on the registry of people who abused adults, usually in settings such as nursing homes or home care.

DCS’ internal review of its operating policies discovered that the 1987 law apparently requires that it share names added to its registry with the Health Department database.

The confidential DCS registry has about 154,000 names, but they will not be forwarded to the Health Department retroactively.

Instead, DCS began notifying people on March 15 who were being added to its child-abuse registry from that date forward that their names also could appear on the public abuse registry and how to appeal their placement on it.

DCS began on July 1 sending to the Health Department the names of people who did not appeal. “We have to ensure that everyone gets due process,” said a DCS spokesman. But is this move really due process?

Longtime child advocate Linda O’Neal echoed our sentiments when she told The Commercial Appeal’s Nashville bureau chief, Richard Locker, “First and foremost, nobody wants any vulnerable adult or child to be abused, so the intent of the Department of Health registry is to prevent that. People clearly belong on that (Health Department) registry who have abused adults.”

O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, added, “That’s different from some circumstances involving children. Clearly, people who have committed child sex abuse ought to be on the registry. Where it becomes grayer is circumstances involving intra-family maltreatment, but not sexual abuse, especially, for example, where young parents who may be under incredible pressures for a whole range of reasons do something stupid and wrong but are never likely to do it again. …”

“It’s essentially putting a scarlet letter on people they have to live with the rest of their lives, which has tremendous impacts, particularly with employment,” said O’Neal.

We add that this is a situation in which people on the list, but who have not been charged with a crime, have not had a chance to clear their names.

It also has to be presumed that if there is enough evidence to justify placing someone on the list, there should have been enough evidence to charge that person with a crime. So why were charges not filed?

Children are society’s most valuable resource. Protecting them from abuse is paramount.

Still, placing someone who has not been charged with a crime on a public child-abuser list doesn’t seem quite right.

While we champion open records, we realize that there are things, such as this list, that could unfairly affect people deep into their future.

Copyright 2015 Journal Media Group. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.