What exactly does a 13-year-old boy have to do to be considered a child abuser? In one case out of Tennessee, a teenager earned that undesirable designation after he pushed another kid’s penis and stuck his finger in the other kid’s butt.
That’s certainly impolite behavior (and battery), but it’s not what comes to mind when we think of child abuse.
If the aggressor, D.W., simply had a juvenile offense on his record, it wouldn’t follow him past age 18. But here, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services added him to the state’s child abuse registry. And that could follow D.W. for life.
D.W. requested a formal file review and submitted written information regarding the victim's inconsistent statements, but never was told the evidence against him. Children's Services conducted the review and upheld the classification.
D.W. then requested an administrative hearing. Children's Services denied the request because the classification did not affect D.W.'s employment. (Tennessee regulations provide for a hearing only if Children's Services is about to release D.W.'s information, or if he is denied employment in field affected by the classification.)
Finally, D.W. filed a civil rights lawsuit against Tennessee and various state officials, arguing that the state denied him due process by refusing his request.
The district court dismissed the case, finding that D.W. did not present a justiciable case or controversy because the alleged deprivation was "anchored in future events." The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, reasoning that:
- Since D.W.'s record as a child abuser may never be removed by the state, D.W. has suffered a concrete injury because the classification as a child abuser is, in effect, permanent.
- D.W.'s injury is actual because he has already been classified as a child abuser by Children's Services.
- D.W. should not have to wait to challenge his classification, and has established a sufficiently concrete injury to support standing.
D.W.'s future interest in pursuing certain types of employment may be unknown and uncertain, but that uncertainty doesn't keep him from being affected now by being listed as a child abuser. Because classification as a perpetrator of child abuse creates a concrete, particularized, and actual injury, he has standing to challenge the procedures to contest the classification.
Furthermore, his claim is ripe for judicial review because the relevant facts are fit for judicial resolution, the determination not to give process now is sufficiently final, and without adequate process now, D.W. would be unable to challenge his classification in the future.
- Tonia Wright v. Kathryn O'Day (Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- No Qualified Immunity for School in Due Process Violations (FindLaw's Sixth Circuit Blog)
- Social Workers Have Qualified Immunity in Guardianship Dispute (FindLaw's Eighth Circuit Blog)