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Michigan moves to reform child abuse registry some say has grown too large

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The Michigan Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation making it harder to place adults on the state’s child abuse and neglect registry. (Nagel Photography / Shutterstock.com)

LANSING — The Michigan Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation making it harder for the state to place adults on the state’s child abuse and neglect registry — a list of people the state deems of high risk to children.

The nine-bill bipartisan package, passed during the National Child Abuse Prevention Month, would raise the threshold for placing an adult on the registry and offer more ways to remove someone from the list if they no longer pose a harm to children.

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The bills were introduced as child safety advocates and parents in Michigan and across the nation are growingly critical of the so-called Central Registry.

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State officials say Michigan’s list has grown to 277,000 names, and advocates contend too many are included even though they haven’t been accused of crimes and don’t pose harm to children.

The registry is not public, but is included in background checks for schools, foster care agencies, childcare centers and other organizations. Bill sponsors say they want to shorten the list to focus on child abusers and not those who may have been investigated for lesser offenses by social workers.

“What we are trying to do is tighten the selection criteria for who’s placed on the registry,” Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, told Bridge Michigan.

“We are talking about: Does falling asleep on the couch (count as) the kind of behavior that gets you on the Central Registry?”

Michigan’s registry was created in 1975 following a 1974 federal law, which granted money to states that required reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect. As of May 2018, Michigan was one of 44 states with laws requiring such reporting, according to the federal children’s bureau housed under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Under the current state law, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is required to place parents or guardians on the registry if a child abuse or neglect claim against them is substantiated by the agency through a field investigation. 

The bills, championed by LaGrand and Rep. Luke Meerman, R-Coopersville, would require the state to focus on adults — parents as well as non-parental adults — who posed “serious” physical or mental harm to children. 

Under the legislation, adults who beat, torture, murder, sexually assault or exploit children or expose children to methamphetamine production would be added to the registry. Those who are convicted of a felony against children would also end up on the list.

“If this package passes, we will be rightsizing this registry,” LaGrand said.

Several child safety advocacy groups support the change, including Evident Change, a nonprofit focused on improving social systems, and Bethany Christian Services, a global foster care and adoption nonprofit.

The state House unanimously approved the measure in December, but must sign onto changes made by the Senate before it goes to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose office said she will “closely review the final legislation to make sure it puts parents and children first.”

“Every parent should have confidence that their children are safe and in good hands while they are at work or running errands,” said Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy in a Wednesday email. 

Under the legislation, adults on the registry can request a hearing once every 10 years for the state to reassess their risk to harm children. The hearing must be held in front of an administrative law judge, who must assess the accused based on the “facts and circumstances in the years” since they made the registry. Those who were convicted of child abuse and neglect could also petition the court to remove them from the registry if their convictions are expunged.

Currently, the Children’s Protection Services decides whether to remove someone’s name from the list after 10 years of placement if there isn’t an expungement or removal request. 

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Under the state law, someone who receives a notice of being placed on the registry has 180 days to ask the department to amend the record or to hold a hearing to remove their names from the list. The agency must then conduct a hearing where an administrative judge decides if there’s a “preponderance of evidence” — a more-than-50-percent chance — the claim against them is true.

But most appeals have been rejected, Bridge previously reported, and the law does not offer the accused another chance to appeal their case. 

Expunged convictions also do not “determine” if the state agency can remove someone from the registry, according to state health department spokesperson Bob Wheaton.

“Conviction has to do with a criminal case and doesn’t determine whether our department substantiates child abuse/neglect,” Wheaton said in an email. “The department notifies someone who is placed on Central Registry and that person has the opportunity to appeal.”

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