In DHS v. Steiner, the Georgia Supreme Court held that DFCS’s child abuse registry is not criminal in nature and that the complainant failed to demonstrate that the registry violated his constitutional right to due process.
The child abuse registry, more formally known as the Child Protective Services Information System, is accessible only to certain governmental agencies. It maintains information about what are referred to as “substantiated” cases of child abuse. Under the statute, investigators working for DFCS determine if the alleged abuse is substantiated and, if so, they add information into the registry about the alleged abuse, the person accused, and the alleged victim. DFCS must notify an accused abuser of his inclusion in the registry and the person has the right to request an evidentiary hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
In this case, Steiner argued that the registry violated the separation of powers by vesting judicial power in a DFCS investigator. He asserted that the registry was criminal in nature and entitled him to the rights of a criminal defendant prior to being placed on the registry.
In addressing the due process violation, the Georgia Supreme Court looked to the nature of the injury. The Court reasoned that stigmatization alone, for being on the registry, did not implicate a liberty interest. The complainant must also show a right that has been distinctly altered or extinguished under the “stigma-plus” test.
The Court held that Steiner’s assertion that the registry deprived him of the ability to work as a teacher or childcare provider did not satisfy the stigma-plus test because he offered no evidence that he had ever worked in, applied for, or intended to pursue those vocations. He also claimed that the registration could be used against him in a future criminal proceeding, but the Court found this to be too remote or speculative to constitute an alteration or extinguishment of a state-given right.
In rejecting Steiner’s claim that the registry statute was criminal in nature, the Court reasoned that maintaining a database of substantiated child abuse cases did not fit a historic category of punishment and that restricting access to the registry to government agencies prevented any sort of public shaming of those on the registry. The Court noted that even if the statute did preclude some employment opportunities such as working in childcare, that would not make it criminal in nature.
The Court determined that the registry statute did not promote retribution and deterrence, the traditional aims of punishment. In addition, the Court stated that the registry has the legitimate non-punitive function of protecting children, and including an alleged abuser in the registry was not excessive in serving this function.
In addressing the Steiner’s separation of powers argument, the Court disagreed that the DFCS investigator performs a judicial role by determining whether cases of alleged abuse are “substantiated.” The Court reasoned that there is a history of permitting agencies to make quasi-judicial decisions when implementing law that is distinct from judicial power and pointed out that the complainant had a right to a hearing before an ALJ who makes the final agency decision.
As a result, the Court upheld Georgia’s child abuse registry as constitutional.