Every year thousands of Pennsylvanians are placed on the child abuse registry for alleged child abuse or neglect, without first having an opportunity to challenge the allegations against them. These Pennsylvanians suffer devastating economic consequences, often for life, and the harm falls disproportionately on low-wage workers, workers of color, and their children. As the job market restricts in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial that low-income families can access employment, especially in high growth fields like health care.
Unfortunately, many more Pennsylvanians are at risk of being placed on the child abuse registry today due to the continued aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal. One of the most significant changes to Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law (CPSL) in the wake of the Sandusky scandal was expanding the requirement for who needs to undergo child abuse background checks. These expanded background checks have had significant consequences for low-income workers and their families. Many of the types of jobs available to low-wage workers include 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. As such, placement on the child abuse registry disproportionately impacts low-wage workers, people of color, and the families they are trying to support.
Blocking off the ability of parents and caregivers to access employment in high-growth fields only serves to hurt the very children the child abuse registry is supposed to protect in the first place. The child abuse registry thus exacerbates child poverty and places vulnerable families in even more precarious circumstances. And all too often, placement on the registry is based on faulty or incomplete investigations, or on the caseworkers’ misapplication of evidence or misunderstanding of statutory definitions. In many cases, racial, cultural, or economic differences create an additional bias that factors into a caseworker’s determination of whether child abuse or neglect occurred.
In this current time of extreme vulnerability where low-income families are struggling to survive the Covid-19 pandemic, reform of the child abuse registry system is urgently needed. We propose reforms in four categories that prioritize: 1) strengthening due process protections before someone can be placed on the registry and provide for a right to counsel; 2) restructuring the registry to distinguish between serious incidents of abuse (e.g. sexual assault) from more minor incidents (e.g. missed doctor appointments) and limit how long people must stay on the registry; 3) limiting the use of the registry as an employment screening tool by narrowing the category of jobs that must have child abuse clearances and only reporting individuals whose conduct is tied to ability to perform the job safely; and 4) conducting a racial impact analysis of the registry and address structural racial bias at every step of the process. Ultimately, we note this a moment for reimagining what child safety and family well-being looks like, and that there are more effective and equitable ways to protect children than relying on an overly punitive child abuse registry system.
While the goal of protecting children from abuse is laudable, the child abuse registry has gone too far in serving as an employment screening tool that prevents loving parents and caregivers from being able to financially support their children. As we look toward economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more urgent than ever to reform the child abuse registry system in Pennsylvania to ensure that low-wage workers are not unnecessarily excluded from desperately needed employment.
Please read our new report to learn more about this harmful system and our policy recommendations.