PHILADELPHIA, PA – On August 10 parents, caregivers, and community organizations filed suit in the case of A.W. v. Commonwealth to challenge Pennsylvania’s ChildLine Registry as unconstitutional. The suit, filed in Commonwealth Court, alleges that parents and caregivers are listed on the Registry and labeled as “child abusers” without first having a chance to defend themselves at a hearing, which is a violation of due process and the right to reputation under Pennsylvania’s Constitution.
Petitioners in this case are represented by attorneys from the Employment and Family Advocacy units of Community Legal Services (CLS); Peter (Tad) LeVan of LeVan Stapleton Segal Cochran LLC; and Seth Kreimer, professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.
As the stories of the Petitioners in the lawsuit demonstrate, it is far too easy to be “indicated” for child abuse in Pennsylvania and listed on the Childline Registry. The allegations against parents and caregivers often arise from situations like missed doctor appointments, accidental injuries, or medical conditions with unknown causes.
Petitioner A.W. was indicated and placed on the Registry when a child in the group home where she worked developed unexplained bruising that a doctor believed would have occurred in the week prior. A.W. had no knowledge of how the bruising occurred, but she, along with six colleagues who had worked during the prior week, were all issued “indicated” reports and listed on the Registry without a hearing.
Being listed on the Registry excludes individuals from employment in all childcare and many health care jobs. The childcare and health care sectors are currently facing dire worker shortages that are compounded by the unnecessary exclusion of dedicated workers like A.W.
CLS has long represented parents and caregivers accused of child abuse and neglect to help them clear their names and access employment.
“The cases we see at CLS involve primarily Black and Brown women who are hyper-surveilled and indicated based on circumstances that do not meet the legal definitions of child abuse or neglect. Even though we are usually successful in getting our clients removed from the Registry, it is a lengthy process and harm has already been done in the meantime – people lose their jobs, their reputations are damaged, and it’s traumatizing to both parents and children,” said Jamie Gullen, Managing Attorney of the Employment Unit and Youth Justice Project at Community Legal Services.
Many people either never receive notice that they have been listed on the Registry, or are stymied by a confusing appeals system. A.W., for example, has spent over a decade trying to clear her name but has never been able to get a hearing in her case.
“The Byzantine process for an individual to file an appeal seeking to be removed from the Registry is so complex that, even with legal counsel, it is a challenge to navigate. Unfortunately, most individuals lack access to legal assistance and, as a result, are effectively stuck on the Registry for life,” explained Peter (Tad) LeVan of LeVan Stapleton Segal Cochran LLC.
In addition to causing employment barriers, being listed on the Registry precludes parents and caregivers from volunteering in school, community, and extra-curricular activities – even for their own children.
Petitioner organization La Liga del Barrio, a Latino youth basketball league in North Philadelphia, faces a volunteer shortage because of how many parents and caregivers were unjustly listed on the Registry without an opportunity to be heard.
“Many parents we see have no idea they have been listed on the Registry until they want to volunteer with the league and have to get a clearance. When they find out they are on the Registry and are barred from volunteering, they are devastated,” said Raymond Alvarez, President and CEO of La Liga.
Ultimately, Petitioners argue that the ChildLine Registry is harming children. “When parents cannot find work and are not allowed to be fully engaged in their children’s lives, the ChildLine registry harms the very children and communities it purports to protect,” said Alex Dutton, Staff Attorney in the Family Advocacy Unit at CLS.