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New Lawsuit Challenges New Jersey's Lifetime Child Abuse Registry

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In New Jersey, individuals found to have committed any act of child abuse or neglect are placed on the state’s child abuse registry for life—creating a permanent stigma that bars them from a litany of professions. Even though the evidence in favor of such registries is sparse, they continue to be popular across the nation. However, one New Jersey man is challenging his state’s lifetime registry in court.

New Jersey, like almost all U.S. states, has a child abuse registry listing those whom the state’s child welfare agency or family courts have found to have committed child abuse or neglect. Those on the registry are barred from working in a wide range of fields, including some that do not involve work with children, like substance abuse programs, county mental health boards, or jail diversion programs. While the registry is not publicly accessible, a person’s registry status will show up in some background checks.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed last week, New Jersey’s child abuse registry doesn’t meaningfully protect children from child abusers. Instead, it simply turns those placed on the list into lifetime social pariahs, no matter how long ago their offense was or how law-abiding their lives have been since. Making matters worse, in New Jersey, once individuals are notified, they only have 20 days to challenge their placement on the registry. After this period, the complaint states, there is no process wherein they can appeal their placement or “obtain access to the information used by [child welfare services] in support of its substantiated finding that triggered placement on the Registry.”

The plaintiff in the suit, only identified as K.C., was placed on the registry after he admitted to committing a sexual offense against a sibling when both were minors. Even though K.C. has not re-offended in the 25 years since his placement—and has since been removed from the state’s sex offender registry—he is stuck on the state’s child abuse registry.

This has permanently limited K.C.’s employment, requiring that he leave a long career in mental health services out of “concern that his placement on the Registry would be revealed if he sought advancement to higher positions within the organization at which he worked, or with other mental health facilities or organizations, resulting in the termination or denial of employment,” the suit states.

The suit claims that lifetime placement on the registry violates K.C.’s substantive due process rights. “The Lifetime Placement on the Registry operates as an irrebuttable presumption of dangerousness that is applied to K.C., and those similarly situated, irrespective of how much time has elapsed since their abusive or neglectful conduct, and regardless of their ability to demonstrate that they have lived law-abiding lives, remained offense-free, and do not pose any appreciable risk of re-offending,” the complaint reads.

While child abuse registries and sex offender registries are often hailed as helpful tools to decrease child physical and sexual abuse, evidence for their efficacy is lacking. Information on child abuse registries is limited, but a significant body of evidence shows that, as Hallie Lieberman pointed out in the February 2020 issue of Reason, “The idea that sex offenders are especially likely to reoffend is a myth. A 2012 meta-analysis of sex offender recidivism rates published in Criminal Justice and Behavior found that most offenders’ likelihood of committing another sexual offense over a five-year period was around 7 percent.”

The lawsuit notes this as well. “Contrary to the popular notion that all individuals who have ever committed a sexual offence remain at risk of re-offending through their lifespan, the longer individuals remain offence-free in the community, the less likely they are to re- offend sexually. Eventually, they are less likely to reoffend than the risk of a spontaneous, out-of-the-blue sexual offence among males in the general population.”

But K.C.—and others like him—are still stuck on the child abuse registry, despite being incredibly unlikely to re-offend.

“Lifetime registries are wrong,” James H. Maynard, K.C.’s attorney told the New Jersey Monitor. “They’re wrong based on the science and they’re wrong based on the reality that risk is not static. It is dynamic. Risk declines over time in virtually all cases, but the [child abuse] registry is for life with no right of review, and no process for removal.”

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