"For the Good of the Children" Trumps Due Process
I have waited to write on this for a good bit, because I don't believe in approaching these articles I post from a place of anger. When I first read about the "Vulnerable Persons Registry," I shrunk into a hole of pure outrage at what the Tennessee Department of Children's Services had done and wept that evening at the loss of parental rights and liberties in our state. Now I can at least discuss this with a cooler head, and I pause to discuss it with you here this morning.
I first learned of the "indication letter" last year during a case, and I continue to see its prevalence in Tennessee DCS cases now. The short form version of this nightmarish process works as such: If you are flagged as someone who may have committed abuse or neglect against a child, you are investigated by an interdisciplinary team in the county where the alleged abuse or neglect occurred. If this team decides you are a Child Abuser, you are sent a letter saying that you've been "indicated" as a person who committed child abuse. If you get one of these letters, you have a fixed length of time (10-15 days) from the date of the letter to respond saying you contest the findings of the indication letter. Failure to respond puts you on a "list" of individuals who have been indicated for child abuse or neglect in Tennessee.
Should you make the deadline and send in the letter, most people will get the sole courtesy of a "file review" by a DCS worker in a DCS office to determine whether the findings of the DCS-conducted investigation and subsequent witch hunt were "substantiated." You will not receive a fair and impartial hearing in front of a judicial official--this is just an in-house document review with someone who has a stake in making sure the process continues to be validated and your potential Child Abuse remains on their radar. The only time you MIGHT get a shot at a hearing in front of a judicial official is if you work with children, have worked with children, or may work with children. Then you get an administrative hearing in front of an administrative judge selected by the Department, in a Department office, with a lowered standard of proof than if you were in an actual court proceeding (preponderance of the evidence vs. clear and convincing if you were actually charged with a D&N or Severe Abuse in Tennessee).
The "due process" arguments made by those of us who contest such things are conveniently sidestepped by the "administrative" nature of the process. Such intellectual and legal dishonesty is sickening. It's not a court proceeding unless DCS wants it to be. The letters are just "internal documents" unless DCS wants them to be. Most juvenile court judges and Magistrates will take these indication letters--which are by all accounts inadmissible hearsay--as proof in a D&N or Severe Abuse proceeding if DCS wants them entered because it would be horrible if we ignored any and all potential evidence that outs an Abuser. Because we need to be "careful" when we're doing things "for the good of the children."
That care has taken a new step in the past month. The internal department registry of persons indicated used to be just that--internal. Now the list has been made public and accessible to anyone with an internet connection. The Department says the list--now termed the "Vulnerable Persons Registry"--is not retroactive, and that anyone indicated prior to March of this year will not be placed on the public registry. I put no stock in this "assurance," as hollow as it may be, because DCS has a history of making assurances and then repeatedly reneging on them.
Supporters of the move have said making the "Vulnerable Persons Registry" public is a good thing, that we can't be too careful, and that "when there's smoke there's fire" in discussions of child abuse and neglect. Some have even discussed with me on social media that "you wouldn't believe what it takes to get on the registry--it's enough to have your parental rights terminated."
An interesting point, that. Let's take a look at two specific cases where the Department can and will send out an indication letter, and that incredibly high threshold.
1. A child ingests a toxic substance in the home of a person. That person, noticing the child's impaired physical state, rushes that child to a hospital where the problem is diagnosed, the child is treated, and the child's life is saved. For this timely act, and the good samaritan action of saving a child by getting them proper medical care, you can and will be indicated for the crime of "lack of supervision" because the event occurred in your home.
2. Your children decide they don't want to live with you anymore, and they decide to concoct a horrible story about your treatment of them--including statements that you "force" food and medication down their throats. The Department picks up on these allegations, and they do an investigation. Since children NEVER lie, and we can always count on small ones to do and say everything right, the department will "indicate" you with a letter saying you've abused your children.
The indication system has been horribly broken for some time, and now it's gotten even worse. Most people haven't paid attention to it and most will continue to turn a blind eye because it's not something that affects their lives until it actually happens to them. Plus, it's being done for the good of the children, and no one wants to dispute just how good it is to do something For the Good of the Children. Even if it means trampling over the rights of those who are accused of such horrendous deeds.
This should outrage every person who reads it. We're losing the fight for our rights and liberties because we want to be Safe, and more than that we want our children to be Safe. In that same process, we've managed to take a group of people and place their rights to the side because their alleged egregious acts were against The Children and made it far easier for people to have their lives ruined by a government body.
Sex offenders at least get a trial in front of a fair and impartial judge. We made the Department the Judge, Jury and Executioners in Tennessee, and we did it For the Good of the Children. I wish I could say the lunacy would stop in our state, or that at bare minimum some safeguards would be put in place to keep this list from getting abused.
I have no such ability here.