Tucked into a budget bill signed by the New York governor Friday is new relief for parents accused of child neglect – the result of a hard-fought three-year battle to limit parents’ exposure on a state registry.
Lawmakers approved the landmark reform earlier this week. The measure will prevent many accused parents from landing on the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment, which can be viewed by potential employers.
Parents’ names now end up on the database after child welfare investigators find any corroboration for initial allegations that children are at risk. Starting in 2022, more evidence – most evidence – will first need to suggest that abuse or neglect actually occurred. Under the revised law, for cases of neglect only, the number of years credibly accused parents’ names remain visible on the state-run registry will also be reduced, from up to 28 years, down to eight.*
Advocates for children and parents said the reforms are long-overdue for New York, bringing its practices in line with most other states.
“When I was younger I wanted to be a guidance counselor for middle school students, but I couldn’t go in because I knew I had this history,” said Hope Lyzette Newton, who once had her name on the register.
Newton, whose name was removed three years ago, hopes others like her will now be better able to provide for their children and move forward with their lives.
“The feeling is exhilarating. I got the call that my name was going to be removed the day my daughter graduated from college,” said Newton, who is now a peer advocate for accused parents, with the legal aid firm Center for Family Representation. “It was a wonderful day. There wasn’t anything that could hold me back anymore.”
The state vote this week marks the second time Albany has approved such a reform. The governor vetoed a similar bill late last year, but signaled he’d support a workaround.
The portion of the state’s annual budget he signed today includes largely similar revisions to the state social services law. Technical adjustments were made from last year to ensure minimal costs to the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, which runs the Statewide Central Register.
With nearly 46,000 cases of child maltreatment deemed “credible” by local authorities in 2018, including 21,000 in New York City alone, reform supporters estimate hundreds of thousands of parents on the registry could benefit from the changes.
Influential supporters of the legislation included the chair of the state assembly’s children and families committee, Ellen Jaffee (D); the statewide nonprofit trade group Council for Family and Child Care Agencies; and New York City’s child welfare commissioner, David Hansell.
“Our top priority is the safety and well-being of New York City’s children and that’s why I welcome these reforms,” said Hansell, in an emailed statement. “This progressive reform strikes the right balance between protecting children and helping to expand economic opportunities for low-income families.”
Democratic State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery said passage of the bill she’d long championed, before the conclusion of a historic legislative session rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, is exciting. “It will make a huge difference for hundreds of thousands of people moving forward and we won’t see parents punished so cavalierly,” Montgomery said.
For decades, county-level child maltreatment investigators have only needed “some credible evidence,” to deem allegations against parents “substantiated.” Now, the law says they will need a “fair preponderance of the evidence.” That means the evidence must suggest it is more likely than not that child neglect or abuse occurred, instead of only requiring some evidence to add a parent’s name to the register.
The vast majority of child welfare cases in New York and nationally are categorized as neglect cases, which can arise from children left home alone because a working parent can’t afford daycare, for example, or from poor living conditions, such as lack of food or stable housing.
In New York, maltreatment allegations also fall disproportionately on low-income people of color, hindering job prospects for parents in vulnerable communities. Under current law, even in cases where a family court judge ultimately dismisses allegations, an initial record of a frontline investigator’s conclusions could remain on the state’s database until the accused parent’s youngest child turns 28.
Each state has such a registry, but New York’s has been considered especially easy to get on, and hard to get off.
Joyce McMillan is a leader of the Parent Legislative Action Network, a coalition of affected parents and legal aid providers like the Brooklyn Defender Services, which has championed the measure for years.
“I was moved by the many parents living in poverty who came to me with letters saying they were on the state registry, and that another opportunity was gonna pass them by because of something they were not guilty of — something a judge had never had any oversight of. That was my motivation,” McMillan said.
Cuomo’s veto message last year, in December, cited cost and safety concerns, but he acknowledged changes were “needed.” The proposal in this year’s budget simplifies the change, eliminating different timelines for record access for different types of employers.
Chris Gottlieb, co-director of the Family Defense Clinic at New York University, who helped lead the coalition that pushed the bill for more than three years, said the new law would right a longstanding injustice for parents in the child welfare system.
“The most obvious injustices here — and there were many — were when we’d have a parent who had a drug problem, and that was the basis of their child neglect case. But maybe they did everything that was asked of them by authorities, completing a rehab program and staying clean for years,” Gottlieb said. “Prior to this legislation, often review officers weren’t allowed to consider sealing that name from employers.”
Advocates from across the ideological spectrum — for parents, children, and large foster care service providers — also hailed the change.
“It’s one of the biggest pieces of legislation in child welfare in a generation,” said Julia Davis, director of youth justice and child welfare for the Children’s Defense Fund’s New York chapter. “It’s going to help minimize the collateral consequences for parents, which is the reason it had such broad support. Throughout the system, people understand it’s incredibly difficult for parents who end up on the registry to seek employment, and that drives children and families to the brink of poverty.”
State Senator Velmanette Montgomery is retiring from office this year after four decades in office, adding the State Register reform to a list of other family-focused bills she’s helped pass in recent years, including the 2017 juvenile justice reform known as Raise the Age, and an adoptee birth certificate access reform passed last year.
“This was an important step forward and I’m hopeful that we just opened the door for this conversation to continue,” she said of the register reform bill.
Michael Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected]
*CORRECTION, APRIL 4TH, 2020: An earlier version of this piece stated that revised laws in New York would raise the standard of evidence required to deem a child maltreatment allegation credible–only in child neglect cases, and not in abuse cases. The change applies to both abuse and neglect cases.