NEW YORK – Combatting child abuse is a cause with universal support. Yet a push to create a national database of abusers, as authorized by Congress in 2006, is barely progressing as serious flaws come to light in the state-level registries that would be the basis for a national list.

In North Carolina, an appeals court ruled last month that the registry there is unconstitutional because alleged abusers had no chance to defend themselves before being listed.

In New York, a class-action settlement is taking effect on behalf of thousands of people who were improperly denied the chance for a hearing to get removed from the state registry.

And the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case this fall arising from the plight of a California couple whose names remain on that state’s registry years after they were cleared of an abuse allegation made by their rebellious teenage daughter.

“Nobody wants to be seen as soft on child abuse — and that’s gotten us where we are,” said Carolyn Kubitschek, a New York attorney who has waged several court battles over the registries. “In the state of New York, it is still almost impossible to get off the list.”

More than 40 states have the abuse registries — which are distinct from the better-known registries of convicted sex offenders that every state makes publicly available on the Internet. The abuse lists aren’t accessible to the public, but are used by day-care centers, schools, adoption agencies and other entities to screen people who want to adopt, be foster parents or get a job working with children.

Even critics of the registries say they can serve a vital purpose in barring perpetrators of serious abuse from roles where they would interact routinely with children. It’s the process underlying many of the registries that has come into question — and their potential to entangle innocent people as well as wrongdoers.

A person doesn’t have to be convicted or even charged with a crime to get listed. Under the general practice in most states, entries are based on a child protection investigator’s assertion that the person committed an act of abuse or neglect; hearings or appeals, if granted at all, often come long after the name is entered.

“Anybody can call a child abuse hotline and report abuse — anybody, including your ex-spouse who hates you, your landlord who’s trying to evict you,” Kubitschek said.

law, she said, child protection services must investigate each call — and their subsequent reports can lead to a person’s placement on an abuse registry before they are notified or allowed to defend themselves.

The problems with due process were highlighted last year in an interim report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has been directed by Congress to assess the feasibility of a national child abuse registry.

“Strong due process protections could necessitate significant changes to CPS investigation processes in some states that could be costly to implement and may discourage participation in a national registry,” the HHS report said.

The report also questioned whether a national registry might be plagued by “false positives” affecting innocent people sharing a name with a perpetrator.

The potential problems will be assessed by a new HHS-commissioned study over the next two years, examining the state registries, gauging the states’ interest in participating in a national registry, and trying to determine if one is indeed needed.

“Would a national registry in fact be useful to states?” said Barbara Broman, an HHS official who oversaw preparation of the interim report. “We do not know the answer to that question.”

Congress authorized a national child abuse registry in 2006 as part of the Adam Walsh Act, named for a Florida boy abducted and murdered in 1981. His father, John Walsh, hosts the TV series “America’s Most Wanted.”

Among those urging faster progress toward a national registry is Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who says such a list would help track child abusers who cross state lines to avoid detection and offend again in the new location.

“It doesn’t make any sense at all that while we try to watch sex offenders like hawks, we let child batterers, who physically batter children, slip through the cracks,” he told a news conference last month.

However, Howard Davidson of the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, said most people on the state registries are accused of neglect, not battering or other physical abuse.

Davidson supports use of the registries to screen potential adoptive or foster parents. But he questions whether they’re a suitable tool for employers to vet job applicants because of inconsistencies in the level of proof required to register a name.

A disproportionate number of people on the registries are poor, Davidson said, decreasing their chances of successfully challenging an unfair inclusion on the list.

Even the National Child Abuse Coalition, a major player in Washington in advocating on behalf of abused children, is cautious about the proposed national registry.

Tom Birch, the coalition’s legislative counsel, said there are many unanswered questions about the registry’s costs and how it would reconcile differences in the states’ definitions and handling of child maltreatment.

“Rushing ahead to create a national registry is not the way to go at this point,” he said. “It would need to be done right.”

In New York state, lawyer Thomas Hoffman is representing thousands of people who may have been improperly denied the chance for a hearing to get removed from the state abuse registry.

Hoffman says somewhere between 17,000 and 25,000 requests for hearings were terminated prematurely by the Office of Children and Family Services between 2003 and 2007 — in many cases with the request letters simply shredded. Under a proposed class action settlement, the state has agreed to restore their right to a hearing and promised not to allow employers access to their names in the meantime.

However, Hoffman says it may take years for these hearings to be scheduled — which could leave many of the affected individuals in limbo while prospective employers get no response of any sort to screening requests.

“At least 50 percent of the people who get a hearing are exonerated,” Hoffman said. “There are a lot of people who don’t belong there, and it’s taking too long to exonerate them.”

“There’s a good purpose for these lists,” Hoffman added. “But you could have a divorce case, fighting over custody, the dad puts the kid in car with no seat belt on and the mom calls it in. Suddenly you’re on the same list as the pedophile, and the employer doesn’t know the difference.”