A group of parents and nonprofit agencies is suing Pennsylvania’s child welfare agency over its practice of placing people on a child abuse registry without a hearing, or a meaningful chance for parents to defend themselves — no matter how serious the accusations they face.
When a parent’s name appears on the state’s central registry, known as ChildLine, they can be barred for life from employment opportunities, volunteering, adoption and becoming a foster parent, even when a judge has never confirmed allegations of child maltreatment.
The suit filed Thursday in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court accuses the state of subjecting thousands of residents to “the devastating long-term effects of being falsely identified as child abusers in violation of their constitutional rights.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Human Services, which is named as defendant in the suit and is required to run the registry under state law, said the case is being reviewed but the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Pennsylvania requires mandated reporters such as nurses, law enforcement officers and teachers to call a state-run hotline when they suspect child abuse or neglect. Within 60 days, CPS investigators must decide whether to record the case as “indicated,” resulting in a parent’s name being added to the ChildLine database. At that point, regardless of whether a judge later agrees or rejects the initial CPS finding, parents’ names remain permanently on ChildLine — unless they successfully navigate a complex appeal process, often without a lawyer.
Numerous sectors that are federally funded, including the social services, schools and law enforcement, require that employers check databases such as ChildLine before hiring.
The original intent of the registries was for child welfare agencies to track maltreatment investigations. But starting in the 1980s, federal laws began requiring some employers to check the databases as well, as a way to protect children from adults who could be a threat as employees in child care programs, summer camps or other settings where children are present.
Over the past decade, the state Legislature has also passed dozens of laws that expanded requirements for the use of ChildLine for employment clearances.
But five parents named in the court case filed this week — identified as A.W., M.A., W.B., T.W. and P.L. — say they were never a threat to anyone, and their names should not be on the list. Although child welfare workers initially “indicated” findings of wrongdoing against them, their cases have all been resolved, with their children never being removed into foster care, or safely returning home. Even then, the lawsuit alleges, the parents were denied a meaningful opportunity to have their names removed from ChildLine.
P.L., 36, is among the parents who described the Kafkaesque process to attempt to clear their names.
In an interview, she said she had always dreamed of working with kids or the elderly. But a child maltreatment case closed 15 years ago without a judicial finding of wrongdoing has long prevented that.
At the time, she was a 22-year-old stylist doing a client’s hair, when her 1-year-old son touched a hot hair iron. The next day at the hospital, according to court records, staff there called in a child abuse report. The baby was placed with his great-grandmother for a few months before being returned to P.L. after the case closed.
In 2009, the Department of Human Services declined to review P.L.’s request to have her name removed from the ChildLine registry. According to the suit filed this week, like many parents, she did not know she was entitled to a separate appeal hearing with an independent judge.
The court records show that there have been thousands of “first level review” requests like P.L.’s over the past three years, but 100% have been rejected. Among the few cases where parents find out there is a separate process to make their appeal before a judge, parents have received favorable rulings more than 90% of the time in that time period.
Eventually, P.L. learned of that second avenue for redress. It was 2017, and she had just been turned down for a home health care job. But while representing herself before an administrative law judge, she was told that too much time had passed and she had missed the window for any hope of getting her name off the registry.
In an interview she described the irony of her situation: She has lived with her son for years and he is thriving, she said. He’s an honor student who tutors his classmates and excels in sports. They’ve spent recent Sundays giving away food, water and clothing in a neighborhood with rampant homelessness.
But P.L. has been unable to pursue her desired career in a hospital to support him, after the hiring manager learned of the child abuse report from ChildLine.
“I’m good enough of a parent to still have him, but y’all think I’m so bad you don’t want me working with other kids, and got me on this registry?” she said. “It was confusing in the beginning, just not really understanding the system and not understanding why I am on it or still on it all these years later.”
Another plaintiff is perhaps more unexpected: a pioneering youth basketball league. Raymond and Esther Alvarez said their organization, La Liga del Barrio, joined the suit because well-meaning parents have been barred from volunteering and coaching because their names appear on the registry.
“We’ve been experiencing these issues literally since the onset of our organization,” said the league’s CEO Raymond Alvarez. La Liga del Barrio is the first Latino youth basketball league in Philadelphia, which has hosted Saturday basketball games for more than 12,000 kids in impoverished communities for 22 years.
His wife Esther Alvarez described one parent who cheered on his son and other youth for eight hours one Saturday.
“He would try to help out, just picking up the trash for example, so I asked him ‘why don’t you coach your son’s team?’ He looked down and didn’t say anything,” she recalled, later learning that the man’s name was on the child abuse registry. She added that many of their Spanish-speaking parents have been unaware of their opportunity to appeal because the state only provides information materials in English.
“In the Latino community, some of these parents are embarrassed, don’t want to put their business out there,” she said.
The case was filed by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, LeVan Stapleton Segal Cochran, and attorney Seth Kreimer on behalf of the parents, La Liga del Barrio and Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity. The plaintiffs are careful to note they aren’t challenging the state’s investigative process and reporting for suspected child abuse and neglect.
Their goal is “challenging the unconstitutionally flawed process of immediately placing individuals on the ChildLine registry based solely on indicated reports without first providing the individual with prior notice and a hearing prior to being placed on the registry.”
The court documents note that a handful of other states provide hearings before parents’ names are placed on registries. And Georgia recently ended its registry system altogether.
“Unlike people who have been convicted of sex crimes, parents and caretakers on these registries often never come before a judge,” said Colleen Henry, a Hunter College professor of social work who has been researching registries for years and is serving as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania case.
Henry has found wide variety in state laws and policies for adding and removing parents’ names, and argues they have a disproportionate impact on low-income and Black women.
An April investigation by BuzzFeed News cited experts concluding “there is no evidence registries actually fulfill their intended purpose: to protect children from future harm.” The news outlet found “lists include large numbers of people who don’t deserve to be on them” roping in people who had an “imperfect parenting moment,” as well as those “who did nothing wrong at all.”
Even judges in Pennsylvania have questioned the lack of due process in the state’s registry system.
“It shocks my conscience,” one judge wrote in a 2001 legal dissent, describing how caseworkers’ judgements can harm reputations without “established procedures of due process.”
New York City attorney David Lansner, who won a precedent-setting lawsuit against his state’s child abuse registry, said in an email that he was “very heartened” to see the Philadelphia court filing.
Lansner’s firm won the 1994 lawsuit Valmonte v. Bane case, which found that New York’s Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment had an unconstitutionally low and “especially dubious” standard of evidence for adding parents’ names.
“All over the country, people are realizing that a system that was set up to protect children from abuse is not only ineffective at doing so, but causes substantial harm to children and families, especially those that are poor and of color,” Lansner said. “The only effect of registers has been to prevent thousands of people from working with children, without any benefit to their safety.”
Note: This article was updated on Aug. 13.