"We Won't See Parents Punished So Cavalierly"
When parents are accused of child neglect or abuse in New York State, their names are automatically placed into a state registry, even if the allegations were deemed uncredible, and even if a case of maltreatment against a parent was later dismissed by a family court judge.
And having an open file in the registry affects parents’ economic prospects, because they are red-flagged when applying for certain jobs.
But after years of advocacy, changes are coming. As part of the state budget, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed widely-supported legislation to bring reforms to the system. Last year, he vetoed the bill, citing cost issues.
Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who sponsored the legislation in the state senate, said she was “so excited” about the bill’s passage.
“It will make a huge difference for hundreds of thousands of people moving forward and we won't see parents punished so cavalierly," said Montgomery in a statement. "This was an important step forward and I'm hopeful that we just opened the door for this conversation to continue.”
The registry, called the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment, is easy to get on and difficult to get off. It does not currently differentiate between charges of abuse and of neglect. Many of those neglect charges, legal advocates have said, relate to poverty, such as inadequate housing or leaving children unattended for lack of childcare.
Having an open record with the state, even long after parents had rectified a perceived unsafe situation at home, could restrict certain employment opportunities for those parents for up to 28 years. In New York City, the vast majority of families ensnared in the system are low-income parents of color.
The reforms, which don’t go into effect until January 2022, will increase the standard of evidence needed for child protective services to “indicate” a case of abuse or neglect—meaning the claim of maltreatment is credible enough to continue an investigation.
New York currently has a particularly low burden of proof in these cases, according to Chris Gottlieb, co-director of the Family Defense Clinic at the NYU School of Law and a strong advocate of the reforms.
The legislation also calls for the state to seal the records of parents accused of neglect—not abuse—after eight years for the purposes of employment background checks. Currently, parents with cases in the state register are barred from working certain jobs, such as daycare employees or home health aides.
A wide range of advocates, including children’s welfare organizations, supported this change. They argued that the current rules block employment opportunities for families, thereby hurting children.
The city’s Administration for Children’s Services also supported changes. At the time the bill was introduced, the agency said it was “pleased” with legislation that would better balance the goals of protecting kids with ensuring employment opportunities for low-income communities.
“In New York, this is by far the most progressive child welfare reform that we’ve seen in the last 40 years,” Gottlieb said, because the reforms aim to actually improve outcomes for families.
Joyce McMillan, a family advocate for the organization Sinergia and a driver of the legislative reforms, said the changes were hard won and represent a big step for parents listed in the state registry.
“For many, many decades, this is how the system operated and people didn’t see a need for change,” she said. “And every time we spoke about change, somehow or another, it was flipped back to ‘Children are not going to be safe.’ How does sentencing parents to poverty keep children safe?”
This system is a hard one to change, McMillan said.