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In August, Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash sent a question to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

How many youths have been placed on the department's central registry of child abuse and neglect because they are considered offenders? 

The answer surprised him, and the ages of some of those youths stunned him further. 

Between 1985 and 2013, nine of those placed on the registry were infants. Nine were toddlers, 10 more were preschoolers and nine were kindergarten age.

In total, 128 children 12 and younger and 2,227 aged 13 to 18 were on the registry as of Sept. 15. 

"It was unbelievable to me that any child just a few months old can be listed as a perpetrator of an abuse or a crime," Coash said. 

He set to work crafting a bill (LB292) that would ensure no child 11 or younger would be put on the registry and that all minors on the registry would get a mandatory hearing to consider expunging the record within six months of turning 19.

The bill advanced to a second round of consideration Friday on a 28-0 vote. 

"Branding a child as a child abuser on the basis of his or her juvenile adjudication is directly at odds with the spirit of Nebraska's juvenile code," Coash said. 

The proposed mandatory hearing wouldn't guarantee a youth's name would be expunged, he said. It would just give them an opportunity to explain the circumstance. 

The state's child abuse registry contains records of individuals who the department or the courts find responsible for abuse and neglect of a child or vulnerable adult. 

The registry is used for pre-employment and volunteer background checks, license approvals for child care and youth programs, approvals for placement of children in foster care or adoption and to collect statistical data.

HHS staff told Coash many mistakes had been made over the years in placing children on the registry, and they are working diligently to remove many of the records.  

HHS spokeswoman Kathie Osterman said some minors, for example those who are parents and abuse their children or those who abuse other, usually younger, children, should be on the registry.  

But some of them are there because of data entry errors of birth dates, or the listing of a child rather than a parent with the same name. Some are there because a statute was misinterpreted.

The department supported the bill at its hearing and is reviewing all of the cases involving minors, Osterman said.

Coash said no review of those records had been required in the past, and without his inquiry last summer, all those infants, toddlers and preschoolers would still be on the registry. All children 4 and younger were removed from the registry as of January. 

"We can protect ourselves from future lawsuits by placing more oversight on this registry," he said. 

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist and other senators commended Coash for his work on the issue. 

"This is why we are here, to apply the oversight in government and correct the wrongs that need to be corrected," Krist said. 

These kids frequently find themselves in bad situations through no fault of their own, Coash said. And sometimes those bad situations result in them doing bad things, as well.

"But being put on the abuse registry is a big deal, and there needs to be protections for children, so their rights are protected and their futures can remain bright," he said.

Children don't have the resources to address this, he said.

"Someday those children become adults and something that was part of their past is going to come back to haunt them and they won't even know it until they try to get a job or apply for a license to be a dental hygienist," he said.  

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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