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Charissa Huntzinger

It’s been over a year since Child Protective Services (CPS) wrongfully removed Ashley and Daniel Pardo’s youngest son, Drake, due to an unsubstantiated allegation of medical abuse. The case, which drew widespread media attention and public outrage, culminated with the Supreme Court of Texas ordering CPS to return Drake to his family. Sadly for the Pardos, their battle with the state continues.

Despite the Supreme Court’s order and the ultimate dismissal of the case against them, Ashley and Daniel remain labeled as abusers on a government database known as the Texas Child Abuse and Neglect Central Registry. This sends a loud message that the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) believes their administrative findings to be superior to an opinion from the state’s highest court. It also reveals serious flaws with the central registry.

The central registry is a statewide database that maintains the names of individuals who allegedly abused or neglected a child, or are in the middle of a CPS investigation. It is used to track child maltreatment allegations and is intended as a tool to protect children from individuals who may pose a risk to their health or safety. However, since listing happens before any hearing or court ruling as to whether an individual actually committed the alleged maltreatment, the process is rife with infringements upon due process rights.

All that is required to be placed on the registry is an administrative finding made by a caseworker based on their own investigation that there is “reason to believe” the maltreatment occurred. A “reason to believe” finding is not the same as a legal finding made by a court, as is the case with criminal history and sex offender registries. In fact, other courts, like the Supreme Court of Missouri in Jamison v State Department of Social Services Division of Family Services, have held that an investigation alone is insufficient to support the loss of liberty that comes with being listed in the central registry if employment could be affected.

In Texas, if an individual is listed on the central registry for any maltreatment, their name will remain in the registry indefinitely unless they successfully appeal the investigation outcome. Texas is one of roughly 17 states — a small minority — that allow names to be entered into the central registry while an appeal is still pending.

The review and appeal processes are also primarily housed within DFPS. To dispute the findings, an alleged perpetrator may request an administrative review of investigative findings (ARIF). This is an informal review conducted by DFPS staff that does not involve a trial or witness testimony, meaning that the case is reviewed by the same entity that originally deemed the individual a perpetrator.

Following the Supreme Court’s order returning Drake and the lower court’s dismissal of the case against them, the Pardos sought to have their names expunged from the central registry through ARIF. This request was denied. Now the family is appealing to the Office of Consumer Relations (OCR), still housed within DFPS.

After years of arduous legal battles and the trauma that comes from disrupted family attachments, the Pardos’ entry on the central registry is not just another obstacle to overcome in pursuit of justice. The presence of an individual’s name on the registry carries significant financial and social implications.

In Texas, employers are allowed to access the state’s central registry when conducting background checks in the hiring process. The education, childcare, and health care industries are required to conduct registry checks for potential employees. This means anyone working or applying to work in a daycare center, hospital, or as a home health aide would most likely not be hired if on the central registry.

Because impoverished families are more likely to be reported to CPS, they are likely overrepresented on the central registry and vulnerable to experiencing restrictions and disqualification from employment. Punitive measures, even unintended punitive measures, that have economic impacts, such as the central registry, can perpetuate or worsen cycles of abuse or neglect tied to poverty.

With the severity of outcomes caused by being listed in the central registry it is imperative that the state reform the process by which individuals are listed and can appeal their inclusion in the registry—not just for the Pardos, but for all Texas families.

Charissa Huntzinger is the director of the Government for the People campaign at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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