Bill creating Child Abuse registry
Indiana – Angie Garza stood in front of lawmakers on Wednesday with a tearful plea. She asked them to prevent another child from dying as her 19-month grandson did.
Those lawmakers responded.
With a unanimous vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee took the first step toward creating what may be the nation’s first public registry of people convicted of child abuse and neglect.
The bill, authored by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, requires the state to create a publicly searchable website that lists all persons convicted of crimes against children, akin to the sex offender registry.
Such information exists but access is limited to police and employers doing background checks for workers in licensed child care facilities.
The origins of the proposal lie in the tragedy of Garza’s family.
Her grandson, Kirk Coleman, died in October 2014 while in the care of an Elkhart County woman whom Garza later learned was previously charged with battering a toddler and temporarily barred from caring for children.
While the woman told Garza that her grandson accidentally choked while eating, a pathologist later ruled his death a homicide caused by blunt-force injuries to the head.
“We’ve been trying to get justice ever since, not only for him, but for all children,” Garza said during emotional testimony.
Yoder said he was approached by Garza last fall, after Jackie Rolsten of New Paris, Ind., was charged in Kirk Coleman’s death.
Garza said her family had known Rolsten for many years, but they had no knowledge of her criminal history. In 2006, Rolsten was arrested on a felony child-battery charge involving a 2-year-old. She later pleaded to child neglect.
Though her prison term was suspended, Rolsten was ordered by a judge to stop her in-home childcare business while on probation. That order expired before she started taking care of Kirk.
“We had no idea,” Garza said.
Rolsten, now awaiting trial in Elkhart County on a charge of felony-battery resulting in death, didn’t need a state license to care for Kirk. Because she never cared for more than five children in her home, she fell outside of state licensing requirements.
Officials say thousands of such unlicensed childcare providers operate across the state.
Yoder said a registry will fill a gap by giving parents a place to see if someone coming into contact with their children has any prior child-abuse convictions.
“If there’s any good that can come from this, this may be it,” he said.
Still, the bill faces hurdles.
On Wednesday, a State Police official estimated it may cost up $300,000 a year to create and maintain such a registry. At this point, Yoder’s bill comes with no funding.
Supporters of the idea – including Senate Judiciary Chairman Brent Steele, R-Bedford – promised to find it a way to pay for it.
“I don’t care about the fiscal impact,” said Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis. “When it comes to the safety of children, I don’t care if we have to spend a million dollars.”
Other states have child abuse registries, but public access is limited.
Michigan lawmakers debated creating a public registry like the one Yoder wants after lawmakers there heard testimony from a family with a story similar to Garza’s.
That measure stalled when the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns that the registry could have an unintended consequence: Someone may be less willing to report a spouse or family member suspected of abuse because they know the individual will be placed on the registry.
The ACLU also argued the registry is a kind of perpetual punishment, not allowing for people who’ve been rehabilitated to get off the list.
Larry Landers, head of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said a public child-abuse registry may face similar challenges. He noted that Indiana’s sex offender registry, a public website that lists the names and addresses of persons accused of sex crimes, has faced multiple court challenges.
Those issues matter little for Kirk’s mother, Anissa Garza, who wept quietly Wednesday as she sat with a dozen family members to watch the hearing.
The measure must still pass the Senate, then move to the House for a hearing, but Garza said she is relieved that it is gaining support.
“I wouldn’t want to see this ever happen to any other parent,” she said.