This article was originally published at Philly.com.
A woman and her ex-husband shared custody of their 18-month-old daughter. After spending the weekend at her dad’s house, the girl was returned to her mother’s home with a case of diaper rash.
The dad notified the mom of the rash and gave her a tube of ointment that he had been applying. The mom watched the rash for several days, applying the ointment as directed by the medication’s instructions. When the rash did not go away, she took her daughter to the doctor, who found that the rash had become infected and reported the mother to the local child-welfare agency for child neglect.
The mom had done what almost every parent would have under the circumstances—she had treated the rash, watched it closely, and ultimately made the decision that it required medical attention. However, she was placed on the civil statewide Childline and Abuse Registry and lost her job as a home health aide. Until she was able to get a hearing and clear her name—a process that can take as long as a year—she was unable to get another job in the profession she had been trained in.
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In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, the Pennsylvania legislature passed 23 bills containing hundreds of amendments to the Child Protective Services Law (CPSL). Exactly two of those amendments may possibly have stopped Sandusky’s abuse of children at an earlier stage. Most of the other changes involved redefining child abuse and expanding background checks in ways that are increasingly—and irrationally—resulting in significant consequences to the employment, reputations, and child custody of low-income people, especially people of color. These consequences inevitably have great impact on children and families.
We’ve heard about the college professors and parent volunteers in schools offended by the inconvenience and intrusiveness of having to get child-abuse background checks. Little, however, has been reported about the people most affected by these background checks: low-wage employees, such as cafeteria workers, school secretarial staff, home-health aides, and day-care teachers.
Many people are being needlessly barred from employment—sometimes even losing long-term jobs—due to criminal records that are extremely old, minor, or irrelevant to their ability to safely be employed around children. Many more are barred from jobs because of placement on the registry without any court proceedings, or even proof. Under the new amendments to the CPSL, these consequences are being exacerbated.
Protecting children is necessary and commendable. But the registry is an arbitrary and inaccurate tool for assessing who presents a risk, either to their own children or those under their care at work. Yet the registry is regularly used as a screening tool. People with “indicated” reports are listed in the registry and barred from working in day care, education, health care, nursing homes, paratransit, and a growing number of other jobs, predominantly ones filled by low-wage workers.
Placement on the registry has always been too easy. When a county agency responsible for children’s welfare receives notice of suspected child abuse or neglect—from a teacher, a doctor, a neighbor, and (not too rarely) sometimes an angry ex-spouse—it is required to investigate the allegations within 24 hours. After speaking with the child (if that child is of speaking age) and any other relevant parties, and reviewing whatever evidence is available, the agency makes a decision whether or not to “indicate” the report—that is, place the suspected perpetrator on the registry.
There is no hearing, no opportunity to present evidence. A caseworker checks off a box, and an individual is placed on the registry effectively for life—unless this person successfully appeals within a very short deadline. The individuals concerned are not entitled to view the investigation file before or after placement.
All too often, indicated reports are based on faulty or incomplete investigations, or on actions or omissions by parents or caretakers that simply do not meet the statutory definitions of child abuse. Even with a careful investigator, the sometimes-fine distinction between lawful discipline through spanking and abuse can be lost.
In the experience of Community Legal Services, some social workers and supervisors put people on the registry too casually and do not comprehend the significant financial and emotional toll on the family that can ensue from a child-abuse report.
From an institutional perspective, checking off the box seems like a less intrusive option than removing a child from the home, and creates a record that the agency “did something.” It is a matter of routine. We also see many instances in which false accusations of abuse are raised in the course of contentious custody disputes, a circumstance that can be noted by a social worker as a concern, but disregarded in a “better safe than sorry” posture.
The recently expanded definitions of child abuse make this bad situation worse. The removal of the word non-accidental from the definition increases the risk that parents and caretakers will be placed on the registry for accidents that happen in the normal course of children’s lives.
It is now child abuse if a parent or caretaker acts or fails to act in a manner that creates a “reasonable likelihood” of injury, whether or not an injury actually occurs. Neglect is defined as, among other things, any repeated or prolonged act that “threatens a child’s well-being.” These are extremely low standards; all parents make judgment calls, knowing their child and their individual and family circumstances, that arguably could carry a reasonable likelihood of harm to body or well-being.
In our experience, low-income parents and caregivers are more likely to have governmental agencies involved in their lives and questioning their judgment calls; in effect, they are held to a higher standard of parenting than middle- and upper-class parents and professionals.
The CPSL amendments have also broadened requirements for background checks to an absurd degree. Now, anyone on the registry who has “routine interaction” with children at work is barred from such employment, even if children are never under their care or supervision. One government agency has interpreted “routine interaction” as passing in the hallway.
I am certainly not suggesting that convicted sex abusers be able to work in day cares or schools. However, are we really concerned that someone who once accidentally left an iron on, who didn’t treat a burn sufficiently, even who once lost it and slapped her delinquent teenage daughter, is such a danger to others that he or she can never drive a school bus, hand out food in a cafeteria, or even diligently and safely care for children in a day care? Certainly there are individuals who inflict great harm to children and those individuals should face appropriate consequences. But lumping them in with parents and caregivers whose actions were accidental or the result of a minor and isolated incident results only in detracting resources and energy from the more egregious cases and in deepening poverty for families.
The commonwealth should revisit the recent CPSL amendments to effect a more rational and balanced approach that will both protect children and afford parents the ability to make sound and reasoned parenting choices without losing employment opportunities for life.