Sex offender registries and notification laws have proliferated in the name of protecting women and children, despite the fact that the evidence does not show that they prevent sex crimes. In fact, some evidence suggests that notification laws—which require that registry information be made available to the broader public—may increase recidivism and overall rates of sex crime. Even so, the State of Michigan seems poised to add a public, online, and searchable child abuse registry modeled on the sex offender registry.
“Wyatt’s Law,” which passed the Michigan Senate on December 7, is the result of an advocacy project by Erica Hammel, a woman whose toddler was violently shaken by her ex-husband’s girlfriend. Hammel believes that, if she had known about the girlfriend’s past child abuse convictions, her son Wyatt would not have suffered from the long-term impairments caused by being shaken. The bill now heads to the Michigan House.
While Wyatt’s Law may sound good in theory, the bill would have dire impacts on people who are dependent on drugs, and their families, if passed.
For one, people like Harold and Kimberly Murphy will have their names, photographs, and other identifying information plastered on the internet, alongside the label “Child Abusers,” for five or 10 years, which will likely drive social support away from them just when they need it most. The Murphys’ child found a prescription morphine pill that belonged to Kimberly’s deceased mother, consumed it, and tragically died. Assistant Macomb County Prosecutor Yasmin Poles said the “reckless act” that made the child’s death a child abuse crime was “that their house is a pigsty.” While Kimberly Murphy successfully challenged the conviction, Harold Murphy did not.
Elected Charlevoix County Prosecuting Attorney Allen Telgenhof has also opined that parents who use drugs are immediately suspect as “child abusers,” as “[t]here are direct dangers, such as needles lying around the house, and indirect dangers such as how are they able to care for their child when they are high on drugs.” Under the bill as drafted, all child abuse convictions would trigger public registration, including the misdemeanor provision only requiring an “omission” or “reckless act” for a conviction.