How to Remedy Harm Caused by State Child Abuse Registries
A four-state learning collaborative, supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is examining child abuse and neglect registries with the goal of reducing unintended harm to the parents named in them. Comprising advocates from Arizona, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Vermont, the collaborative also is working to develop and advance proposals through the State Policy Advocacy Reform Center, a national network of state child welfare advocates. This center, operated by the Partnership for America’s Children, is a Casey Foundation grantee.
The collaborative is investigating several state registry processes:
- how states decide who will be listed;
- whether states provide advance notification and due process; and
- potential pathways for a named parent to exit a registry.
The advocates also are addressing the disproportionate representation of Black and low-income parents named in these registries.
“This effort has emerged in direct response to the priorities expressed by families who report economic hardship and disproportionate effects on communities of color caused by these registries,” says Todd Lloyd, a senior policy associate at the Casey Foundation. “State reform of registries requires a judicious approach — keeping children safe and connected to their families while also avoiding undue harm affecting employment and community involvement.”
What Is a Child Abuse and Neglect Registry?
States began using child welfare records to create registries that could help employers identify someone named as a perpetrator of child abuse. In fact, federal and state laws require many employers to consult these registries when conducting background checks on job candidates. Today, organizations also check registries when adults — and in some states, older youth — seek to volunteer in a setting that involves children. The names in the registries come from reports of child abuse or neglect that a child welfare agency has substantiated. The registries themselves are managed by state child welfare agencies and not accessible to the public.
How Do Child Abuse and Neglect Registries Work?
Congress and states originally envisioned that registries would help with background checks by resolving an information gap: the cases with evidence of physical or sexual child abuse that are not prosecuted through the courts and, therefore, produce no criminal record. States compile registries using child welfare investigation records. These agencies can label a person a perpetrator and add them to a registry without having the same robust evidence needed for the criminal standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
These registries include people who were investigated for reports of neglect, which can be broadly defined and differs by state. A finding of neglect can occur in cases where children have unmet needs, such as food, stable housing or prompt medical care. A parent could be investigated if a mandated reporter, such as a teacher, cites well-being concerns, like a child coming to school in dirty clothes, being left home while a parent works or being around drug or alcohol use at home.
Though the intent of registries is to protect youth, a parent can be put on a registry without ever having committed physical or sexual child abuse.
Opportunities for Child Abuse and Neglect Registry Reform
Investigations into reports of neglect or abuse and the placement of individuals on registries disproportionately affect people of color and people living in poverty. More than 50% of Black children and more than 30% of all children are affected by a child protective services report or investigation before age 18, research shows.
A parent listed in a registry may lose a job, be barred from certain types of work or prevented from interacting with their children’s school activities. Registry placements linked to neglect can exacerbate stressors for a family or further isolate the parent. If job loss occurs, child welfare agencies may find added grounds to remove a child from their home.
State advocates studying these registries report the following:
- insufficient data to demonstrate how registries reliably or effectively protect children;
- inconsistencies across states in how neglect is defined, how registry additions are made, how long an individual remains on a registry and if there is a pathway for exiting the registry;
- disproportionate effects on women and other people who seek or hold jobs with low wages (e.g., home health care or child care); and
- data indicating that some states name youth, ages 12 to 17, as perpetrators, which could establish a record that follows them into adulthood.
Building a Better Child Abuse and Neglect Registry
“It remains reasonable and warranted that people are appropriately screened to work directly with children,” says Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice in Pennsylvania and a Casey Foundation consultant who leads the collaborative that is researching these registries. “Still, we’ve reached a point where we must reconcile this child protection goal with rightful concerns about the consequential and disproportionate effect of registries.”
Palm and other advocates in the collaborative are seeking to work with stakeholders to advance the following changes:
- reduce racial and ethnic disparities, in part, by addressing how neglect is defined and who gets added to a registry;
- ensure timely due process before a person experiences job loss and other consequences;
- reconsider and, where possible, curtail reliance on these registries;
- propose tiered approaches that exclude certain situations from a registry or limit the time a person is on a registry; and
- prevent families from falling deeper into poverty and child welfare system involvement due to an agency finding of neglect.