Pa. needs to fix child abuse registry errors that turn into permanent barriers to employment | Opinion

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By Janet Ginzberg and Saadiqa Kumanyika

Kalia works as a home health aide. When she was nineteen and her son was two, she was homeless. She brought her son to live with his father while she worked to stabilize her life. While in his father’s care, her son had an accidental burn injury.

The burn became infected and, when the father brought her son to the hospital, child welfare was called to investigate. Both Kalia and her son’s father were placed on the child abuse registry for medical neglect, even though Kalia wasn’t with her son at the time the injury happened.

Placement on the registry made it difficult for Kalia to become employed in the medical field and for several years she struggled to find a job.

Eventually, she was able to connect with a lawyer at Community Legal Services and clear her name, allowing her to secure work in home health care. But many people are not able to access legal aid and suffer the economic consequences of being on the child abuse registry, often for life.

As a recent report by Community Legal Services describes, it is far too easy for caregivers like Kalia to be placed on the child abuse registry, which disproportionately impacts low-wage workers, people of color, and the families they are trying to support.

The child abuse registry is a centralized database containing records of child abuse and neglect investigation reports.  In Pennsylvania, children and youth agencies investigate reports of child abuse and neglect after receiving any report that is made to them.

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The investigator is the “judge and jury.” Without any hearing, they decide whether there was substantial evidence of child abuse and, if so,  they “indicate” the report, placing the accused on the registry. The criteria used to make these determinations is often unreliable and heavily influenced by the investigator’s personal biases.

Employers may—and in some cases must–use the registry records to screen prospective employees for jobs. Due to recent amendments to the Child Protective Services Law (CPSL), anyone expected to have “routine interaction” with children is required to receive a child abuse clearance.

Many of the types of jobs available to and occupied by low-wage workers include possible contact with children—childcare, jobs in schools (including cafeteria workers, crossing guards, school bus drivers, janitorial staff), jobs in hospitals, and home health care jobs.

Consequently, being on the registry robs Black and Brown women like Kalia of the opportunity to achieve income and stability for their families. The registry consigns them to a perpetual cycle of poverty and ongoing surveillance by the state. Unfortunately, very little is being done to the devastating consequences of being on the registry.

Conversely, over the past decade there has been a heightened awareness of the consequences of criminal records and a recognition that convictions should not be permanently held against people.

Pa.’s child abuse hotline is now run out of employees’ homes, but receiving far fewer tips than normal

Criminal justice reforms have swept across the United States: a growth in reentry services that help individuals reintegrate with society after returning home from prison; “Ban the Box” movements that have led to the banning of questions about peoples’ records on job and college applications; and an increase of laws throughout the states that provide for the expungement or sealing of criminal records.

There have long been federal, state and municipal laws that restrict employers’ ability to consider criminal records that are old or not related to the employment being sought or held.

Pennsylvania has been at the forefront of this movement. In 2019, it passed the Clean Slate Act, which automatically seals convictions for many misdemeanor offenses after 10 years has passed. This new statute has greatly enhanced the ability of those with sealed convictions to access suitable employment, housing and educational opportunities.

In the criminal justice system, people who are arrested have protections that are not shared by people placed on the child abuse registry.

Embedded in the American philosophy of “innocent until proven guilty,” is the idea that even if there was “probable cause” (or “sufficient evidence”) to make an arrest in the first place, people should not suffer significant consequences without due process of law.

Arrests cannot become convictions without the absolute right to have a hearing before judge or jury, and a prosecutor bearing the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime. Laws that allow for clearing of old records and restrict employer’s consideration of records are generally even more stringent with regard to arrests.

Placement on the child abuse registry carries no similar protections, despite the fact that this placement results in similar consequences as a criminal conviction.

Indicated reports—like arrests—result from a finding that there was “sufficient evidence” that the abuse or neglect occurred.  However, as described above and in CLS’s report, people are placed on the registry without any right to a hearing or an opportunity to be heard by an impartial adjudicator.

The dire consequences that result are immediate–and lifelong if the person is not aware of the indicated report or does not successfully navigate an extremely complicated appeals process. Employers are not barred from considering civil child abuse records—indeed, many are required to do so and to do so without any consideration of time passed or whether the alleged abuse or neglect makes the person a threat to others.

Founded reports, which are more akin to criminal convictions in that they resulted from a hearing with due process, have absolutely no vehicle for expungement, regardless of circumstances, time passed, or proof of rehabilitation.  Finally, with criminal convictions, the punishment is meant to “fit the crime.”

Shoplifting is treated differently from murder. Conversely, all indicated reports on the registry are lumped together and treated the same, regardless of the severity. A parent who misses a doctor’s appointment faces the exact same consequences as a person who sexually abuses a child. This system creates a barrier to employment that is insurmountable and most keenly experienced by low-income workers.

It is time for our commonwealth to recognize the parallels between the child abuse registry and the criminal justice system.

People accused of child abuse or neglect should be afforded both the opportunity to adequately defend themselves against accusations and the recognition that people ultimately found to have committed an offense are entitled to second chances.

While placement on the registry does not lead to incarceration, other effects of an indicated report are the same, most significantly their impact on the ability to access and maintain employment.  The resulting economic consequences for low-income individuals and their children are dire.

CLS’s report outlines a number of policy changes that would help to ameliorate some of the shortcomings of the child abuse registry.

These include improving the procedures for placing people on the registry, making changes to the structure of the registry to reflect that there are different kinds of child abuse and neglect, limiting the use of the child abuse registry as an employment-screening tool and addressing racial and socio-economic biases that are inherent in the system.

We call on policy makers, legislators, and advocates to closely examine the recommendations in the report so that we can begin to move towards solutions that strengthen rather than sever familial bonds.

The child abuse registry is a racial and economic justice issue that cannot be ignored. Pennsylvania must once again be a leader on removing unnecessary and onerous barriers to employment.

Janet Ginzberg is a senior staff attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected]. Saadiqa Kumanyika is a social worker at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected].