How to Remedy Harm Caused by State Child Abuse Registries

Posted November 10, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A woman hugs and comforts a young girl on a couch.

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.

Read about a tool that’s help­ing child wel­fare pro­fes­sion­als bet­ter lever­age data

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