The Biden administration promised bold transformative policies that would meet the contemporary racial and economic justice challenges facing the nation. We are hopeful that the Biden administration will include in that commitment some needed and radical changes to its child welfare policy, starting with the nation’s top-down policies around punitive child abuse and neglect registries.
Since their inception, child welfare policies have disproportionately affected Black and brown families, and too often remove children from their homes for things that could be addressed with simple anti-poverty measures. These problems were only intensified by the COVID-19 crisis, which caused severe and unprecedented harm to families, particularly families of color, struggling to get by.
Over the past four years, the movement for child welfare reform seemed promising and true progress has been made. The Trump administration adopted the Family First Prevention Services Act, a law that aims to keep families together by making funding available for prevention services to avoid having to place children in foster care. We also saw an impressive and much-needed investment in access to high-quality counsel for parents and children, as well as efforts to promote an understanding of family relationships as essential to child well-being.
Unfortunately, many child welfare policies still cause more harm than good. A recent report by Community Legal Services found that in Pennsylvania, it is far too easy for individuals to be placed on the child abuse registry. Many states have registries similar to Pennsylvania — a centralized database containing records of child abuse and neglect investigation reports. In Pennsylvania, children and youth agencies investigate reports of child abuse and neglect after receiving any report that is made to them.
The investigator is the “judge and jury.” Without any hearing, they decide whether there was substantial evidence of child abuse and, if so, they “indicate” the report, placing the accused on the registry. The criteria used to make these determinations is often unreliable and heavily influenced by the investigator’s personal biases. Unfortunately, these problems are not unique to Pennsylvania’s registry.
Moreover, in many states including Pennsylvania, employers may — and in some cases must — use the registry records to screen prospective employees for jobs. Due to recent amendments to the Child Protective Services Law (CPSL) in Pennsylvania, anyone expected to have “routine interaction” with children is required to receive a child abuse clearance. Many of the types of jobs available to and occupied by low-wage workers and people of color, include possible contact with children — childcare, jobs in schools (including cafeteria workers, crossing guards, school bus drivers, janitorial staff), jobs in hospitals, and home health care jobs. Consequently, being on the registry robs Black and brown women of the opportunity to achieve income and stability for their families.
Blocking off the ability of parents and caregivers to access employment in high-growth fields only serves to hurt the very children the child abuse registry is supposed to protect in the first place. The child abuse registry thus exacerbates child poverty and places vulnerable families in even more precarious circumstances.
President-elect Biden and the new Congress have the opportunity to bring healing and stability to at-risk families by reforming the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) to ensure fairer and more equitable registry procedures in the states. CAPTA requires child abuse reporting, investigation procedures, the appointment of counsel for children, and child abuse registers that are widely used in nearly all states for screening of persons for employment, licensing and adoption processes.
CAPTA, and the state laws and procedures that implement it, serve to limit job opportunities for working class Black and brown families, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and doing irreparable harm to the children the system is supposed to help in the first place. In order to alleviate the harms of this policy, the Biden administration must pursue the following changes to CAPTA:
- Ensuring fairness and due process in investigations into child abuse and neglect, including the opportunity for a hearing before placement on state registries.
- Limiting state use of child abuse registries as employment screening tools.
- Requiring states to distinguish between serious incidents of abuse (e.g. sexual assault) and minor incidents (missed doctor’s appointment).
- Requiring states to track data on the racial impact of their registries.
Furthermore, without needing legislative action, the Biden-Harris administration should set up a task force to investigate racial bias and inequity in child welfare investigations and states’ child abuse registries and make recommendations to states on redressing racial bias. Funding to support child welfare services in the states should be tied to states showing they have taken steps to reduce racial inequity in their systems.
The Biden administration must work to improve the lives of Black and brown families in many ways, including bolstering the safety net, raising the minimum wage, and funding efforts to secure safe and affordable housing. The administration must also work to directly tackle systems that perpetuate racial inequity and hamper the ability of workers to make a living — and the child welfare system and state-based child abuse registries are an important focus for that work.
Through legislative changes and administrative action, the Biden administration can push states closer to a world in which all families are supported so that all children can thrive.