In October 2018, a gym teacher noticed marks on the youngest of April McBride’s four children, her 8-year-old daughter. A child-welfare worker was called. The girl told a social worker her parents had punished her for acting out in school by hitting her with a belt, according to case documents.
McBride was never charged with a crime (and insists the spanking was actually administered by the father while she was at work). A child-abuse scan at Children’s Hospital revealed no history of injury or neglect. Her sons were never removed from her house. And her daughter, who now lives with her father, still visits McBride frequently.
But a month after the incident, McBride received a notice: She’d been placed on Pennsylvania’s child-abuse registry.
“It was before they did any investigation. They didn’t have any proof. They didn’t have testimony from a doctor or a nurse,” she said. “How can you put somebody on the registry before an actual court date?”
Thousands of people in Pennsylvania are placed on that registry each year for allegations of child abuse after what advocates say are only cursory investigations and — unless they appeal within a 90-day window — with no hearing. If they miss that window, they may be on the list for life.
It’s a system that raises constitutional concerns, according to a new report from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia that calls for legislative reforms. Recommendations include requiring a hearing, with legal representation, before placing anyone on the list, and restructuring the registry to separate minor cases from serious ones, and neglect from abuse.
Given the drastic increase in the number of employers running background checks — and the particular impact on the same low-wage workers, especially women and people of color, who have struggled most in the pandemic — that need is urgent, CLS employment attorney Janet Ginzberg said.
“Now is the time to be broadening job opportunities for low-wage workers, not making it harder for them to get jobs that they’re qualified for,” she said.
A spokesperson for the state Department of Human Services said it would take CLS’s recommendations into consideration within the framework provided by the legislature. However, the department said investigations conducted before submitting a name to the registry are thorough and professional, and must be approved by the agency director and reviewed by the solicitor prior to submission.
“Child welfare professionals take the responsibility of investigation very seriously,” the spokesperson said in a statement, noting that several appeal options are available, including a direct appeal to the secretary of Human Services.
The state legislature passed the law creating a central database in 1994 so cases would not slip through the cracks — for example, when a kid was brought into different hospitals for repeated injuries connected to abuse.
“It’s an important protective device,” said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates. People and organizations can request clearances through the state. He’s required to do so, for instance, before hiring an advocate or recommending a foster parent or relative who could take in a child. Anyone who is indicated as an abuser on the registry “is radioactive.”
But he agreed that reforms are needed to provide due process, and differentiate minor cases from serious ones. “The problem with the registry," he said, "is it’s built to be over-broad.”
The consequences of that have become more dire in recent years, following changes to Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law, in response to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The law broadened the types of jobs that require a check, from child-care positions to any role involving “routine interaction" with children. That has been interpreted as including janitors, home health aides, crossing guards, and jobs in hospitals.
Last year, the state ran 368,649 child-abuse clearances, according to CLS. About one in 11 clearances returned some finding of abuse.
“We have had a number of clients put on the child-abuse registry because the child had diaper rash and it got infected,” Ginzberg said. She said putting those parents on the registry is only keeping them in poverty — ultimately hurting their children, rather than protecting them. Yet, a DHS spokesperson said that no one is put on the registry for neglect, unless that neglect is so severe it amounts to abuse.
For McBride, a West Philadelphia resident who works as a medical coder, the registry has prevented her from taking on contract work, jobs she used to do from home for extra money. At her day job, she’s afraid to apply for a promotion as it could cause her employer to run a new background check. “I don’t want that to come up, so they have me at a standstill,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Human Services declined to respond to concerns raised in the report about the standard of investigation in such cases. Ginzberg likened it to the arrest stage of a criminal case: Investigators have found probable cause to suspect abuse but have not proven it. Those who do fight an abuse allegation generally prevail. Ginzberg said in 21 years, she’s lost only one case. But many don’t understand the process.
For Jennina and Timothy Gorman, an Altoona couple, that distinction became painfully obvious in 2013, when they were charged with endangering the welfare of Jennina’s children. The allegation, that they had locked the kids in a closet, was false, she said. The case was dismissed. But both discovered only later that the ruling did not clear them from the child-abuse registry.
Jennina, who had been working toward a degree in art therapy after discovering how much it helped her own children, didn’t fully understand the situation until she applied for an internship and was turned down because she was on the registry.
“It will stay on my record forever. I can never work with autistic kids, which is what I was going to school for. I have $25,000 in student loans," she said. She now works as a telemarketer and delivery driver. Her husband, who has a degree in criminology, is working in a factory because his inability to clear a background check has prevented him from getting a job in his field.
Ginzberg said it’s up to state lawmakers to change this process — but doing so will take courage. After all, she said, no one wants to appear soft on child abuse.
“I’ve had so many legislators say to me: ‘That’s awful! I had no idea how this works. But I’m not touching this with a 10-foot pole.’”