Legislation introduced to protect children from abuse

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fl., introduced a bill earlier this month to allow government social service officers access to federal criminal databases.

The move, he said, would aid the social workers in protecting parentless children from abusive foster and adoptive guardians. But the proposal to make sensitive criminal information to an entire new class of public servants has raised widespread privacy concerns.

“Those that are suspected perpetrators in one locality will up and move to another state,” said Jason Kello, Foley’s communications director, of abusive guardians. “Once they get a complaint of child abuse, [social workers] will be able to have access to criminal records to see if there’s a pattern with an individual.”

Through the Interstate Identification Index and the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database, federal and state law enforcement authorities can access the criminal records, police photographs, fingerprints and physical descriptions of individuals convicted of felonies or other crimes resulting in a year or more of jail time.

The bill proposed by Foley, co-chair of the Congressional Missing Children’s Caucus, would spread that access to state social workers.

“In today’s mobile society, it is critical that geographic boundaries not limit the flow of information,” Foley said in a statement. “Abusers and abductors are able to move freely across state lines to find new victims and our investigators need access to a national criminal database to keep up with them.”

But the proposal has raised concerns among privacy advocates.

The FBI aroused protests from over 60 policy think tanks, civil liberties organizations and other interest groups in 2003 when it exempted National Crime and Information Center records from recordkeeping requirements of the 1974 Privacy Act.

In a letter the groups wrote to the director of the Office of Management and Budget demanding that it revise the FBI’s rule, they cited the story of a Los Angeles man who was “arrested five times, three at gunpoint,” due to a flawed National Crime Information Center search.

An internal Justice Department report issued in 1999 said fingerprint searches are “highly preferable” to less accurate name searches in minimizing undue invasions of privacy.

The House Judiciary Committee has not yet scheduled a time to review the bill.

The bill is based on a recommendation by Florida’s “Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Protection,” Foley said. Florida Governor Jeb Bush established the panel in 2002 when the abduction of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson called into question the performance of the state’s child welfare system.

So far, the bill has won the support of SEARCH, a government advisory panel made up of representatives appointed by the states, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Florida’s law enforcement department.

While other law enforcement organizations have yet to endorse the legislation, Kello said the wide experience of the department suggests that law enforcement agencies across the country will support it.

Florida, Kello said, handles “all kinds of cases. When they recognize the need for it, I think other states will fall in line.”

“The ability for social workers to be able to protect children as they’re being handed from state care into foster or adoptive families strikes at the heart of anyone who considers the lives of these children important,” Kello said.

Copyright c2005 U-WIRE via U-Wire

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