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The Collateral Consequences of State Central Registries: Child Protection and Barriers to Employment for Low-Income Women and Women of Color

e Collateral Consequences of State Central
Registries: Child Protection and Barriers
to Employment for Low-Income Women
and Women of Color
Colleen Henry, Laina Sonterblum, and Vicki Lens
Virtually every social worker knows about
the core role of state central registries in
the child welfare system.Less well known
is how the very registries that protect children can
also threaten the economic security of their fami-
lies and, in so doing, undermine child safety.
Congress enacted the Child Abuse Prevention
and Treatment Act (P.L.93-247) in 1974 to incen-
tivize states to develop child maltreatment report-
ing systems to systematically track and respond to
allegations of child abuse and neglect (U.S. De-
partment of Health and Human Services [HHS],
2012). Each year approximately 500,000 people—
mostly parents—are substantiated for child mal-
treatment (a child maltreatment allegation is sub-
stantiated [that is, indicated] if the child welfare
agency determines that there is sucient evidence
to meet the state’s statutory denition of abuse or
neglect), and many are placed on these registries
(HHS, 2018).Although these registries are used by
state child welfare systems to investigate and pro-
cess allegations of child maltreatment, they are also
used by employers to identify and bar people who
may pose a risk to children from employment in
child-related occupations.
Reports of recent and historic abuse by people
employed in child-serving institutions point to the
ongoing need to identify those who pose a risk of
harm to children and to prevent this harm if possi-
ble.Reg istries exist to serve that purpose, and child
welfare practitioners depend on registries accord-
ingly. However, our preliminary research suggests
that these registries may have unintended conse-
quences.Specically,they may undermine the eco-
nomic stability of vulnerable families referred to
child welfare systems.
A wide range of employers are required by law
to check central registries before hiring. These
employers typically include schools, day care cen-
ters, adoption and foster care agencies, and agencies
that provide licenses for organizations that are
statutorily required to check registries before re-
cruiting an applicant for paid or volunteer work
(Child Welfare Information Gateway [CWIG], 2017).
In many states, a variety of other entities that ser ve
children also check the central registry when ren-
dering employment decisions. Aected positions
include administrative and custodial roles in schools
and hospitals, home health aides, and roles that
engage people with mental or physical disabilities
(CWIG, 2017).
These categories of jobs are disproportionately
occupied by women, many of whom are women
of color (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of La-
bor Statistics [DOL, BLS], 2018). According to
DOL, BLS (2018), women make up 97.7 percent
of preschool and kindergarten teachers, 93.7 per-
cent of child care workers, 88.5 percent of teaching
assistants, 83.7 percent of personal care aids, and
82.5 percent of social workers. In 2017, 38 percent
of these child care–related jobs were occupied by
African American and Latinx women (DOL, BLS,
Low-income people and people of color are also
disproportionately referred to and substantiated for
maltreatment by child welfare systems (Drake et al.,
doi: 10.1093/sw/swz025 © 2019 National Association of Social Workers 1
Downloaded from by Periodicals Division user on 05 August 2019
2011;Kim, Drake, & Jonson-Reid, 2018;HHS,
2018). There is ongoing debate as to whether the
overrepresentation of low-income families and
families of color in the child welfare system is due
to system bias or elevated risk of harm among
poor populations (black and Latinx families are
more likely to experience poverty than white fam-
ilies), but both poverty and race continue to serve
as strong predictors of child welfare involvement
(Drake et al., 2011;Kim et al., 2018). As a con-
sequence, it is likely that low-income people and
people of color are disproportionately listed on
state central registries.
Given these intersecting trends, employment
opportunities for low-income women and wom-
en of color are likely disproportionally affected by
statecentral registry and employment policies, both
in the short and long term. Parents can be listed
on state registries for years, if not decades (CWIG,
2014;HHS, 2012). In New York State, for exam-
ple, a person substantiated for child maltreatment
can remain on the registry until their youngest
child is 28 years of age (N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law, 2019,
§ 422(6)). In practice, this policy could disqualify a
substantiated parent from engaging in child care–
related work for the totality of her working life.
Access to employment opportunities should not
trump child safety, but central registries, in their
current form, may paradoxically undermine child
well-being—a central goal of the child welfare
system—by increasing risk of poverty-related mal-
treatment. Child welfare agencies often allow par-
ents to maintain custody and care of their children
even when they are substantiated for maltreat-
ment (HHS, 2018). Preventing these parents from
engagzing in work and undermining their eco-
nomic security may increase these children’s future
risk of harm. Moreover, economic stability is often
a prerequisite to the reunication of families, yet
being listed on the registry may prevent parents
from achieving the requisite nancial security.
Underlying these problems are the often con-
fusing and insucient standards and procedures
used to substantiate allegations of maltreatment,
to notify people of their inclusion on these regis-
tries, and to challenge a nding of substantia-
tion (Greer, 2011;HHS, 2012). Unlike statewide
sexual oender registries, which only include those
people who have been convicted of criminal sex-
ual oenses, state central registries often include
all people substantiated for child maltreatment.
Among states, thresholds for substantiation range
from some credible evidence to a preponderance
of evidence (HHS, 2018). The New York Court
of Appeals found that New York State’s use of the
former threshold amounts to a “bare minimum”
standard that “imposes no duty on the fact nder
to weigh conicting evidence, no matter how sub-
stantial” and that allows a report to be substantiated
even if only “one out of several believable items
of evidence supports it” (Matter of Lee TT, 1996).
This low evidentiary standard, adopted by at least
eight states (HHS, 2018), increases the likelihood
that nonmaltreating parents will be substantiated
and included in state central registries. Moreover,
studies nd that substantiation practices vary sig-
nicantly across jurisdictions (Kohl, Jonson-Reid,
& Drake, 2009), suggesting that similar parental
acts and omissions may lead to inclusion in the state
central registry in one jurisdiction,but not another.
State central registries serve a protective role,
which should not be diminished, but these ob-
servations suggest the need for a more critical
examination of registries and their collateral con-
sequences. We have inadequate understanding of
how inclusion on state central registries may af-
fect the economic security of vulnerable families.
Although legal professionals who serve low-income
families have identied obstacles to employment
created by state central registries and have ad-
dressed, through litigation and leg islative proposals,
the lack of procedural due process within registry
systems, social work has yet to suciently examine
the impact of these registries on families. More-
over, although welfare-state scholars have noted
ways in which welfare state policies penalize the
poor (Schram, Soss, Fording, & Houser, 2009;
Wacquant, 2010), none have documented the ways
in which state central registries may work to
surveil, punish, and undermine the economic se-
curity of poor families, particularly those headed
by women and women of color. As social work
scholars, practitioners, and mandated reporters, we
must critically examine how state central registries,
and the policies and procedures that govern them,
both enhance and undermine the well-being of
vulnerable children and their families. SW
Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, P.L. 93-247,
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Greer, M. (2011). Suggestions to solve the injustices of the
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Colleen Henry, PhD, MSW, is assistant professor; Laina
Sonterblum, MSW, is a graduate; and Vicki Lens, JD,
PhD, MSW, is professor, Silberman School of Social Work,
Hunter College, City University of New York. Address cor-
respondence to Colleen Henry, Silberman School of Social
Work, Hunter College, City University of New York, 2180
Third Avenue,New York,NY 10035; e-mail:colleen.henry@
Original manuscript received February 21, 2019
Final revision received April 15, 2019
Editorial decision April 23, 2019
Accepted May 1, 2019
Advance Access Publication July 03, 2019
H, S,  L / e Collateral Consequences of State Central Registries 3
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... The consequences of substantiation can be severe. Specifically, caregivers substantiated for FTP can be separated from their children, mandated to treatment, prohibited from working in designated care occupations, and in some cases, lose their parental rights (Henry, Sonterblum, & Lens, 2019). ...
Full-text available
Failure to protect (FTP), a sub-type of neglect, is used by child welfare systems to categorize and substantiate allegations of child maltreatment. Scholars and advocates have raised concerns that FTP is disproportionately used to substantiate mothers and people of color for harm perpetrated by others, particularly in the contexts of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Limited data exist about how FTP is used in practice or if substantiation of FTP varies by context across gendered or racialized groups. This study extends our understanding of use of FTP by examining who workers substantiate for FTP, in what context, and the justifications they use. Data for this study were drawn from child welfare records in a large, Midwestern county. Mixed methods were used to analyze data from 150 maltreatment referrals which included at least one substantiated allegation of FTP. Findings indicate that the contexts and rate at which caregivers were substantiated for FTP differed significantly across gendered groups. Mothers were most frequently substantiated for FTP in the contexts of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and domestic violence. Fathers were most frequently substantiated in the context of substance use. In addition, rates of FTP substantiation varied across racialized groups. Black caregivers were substantiated disproportionately across all contexts. White caregivers were overrepresented among those substantiated for FTP in the context of substance use. Notably, justification for substantiation decisions were often not documented in data. Implications for policy and practice are discussed.
Full-text available
Welfare sanctions are financial penalties applied to individuals who fail to comply with welfare program rules. Their widespread use reflects a turn toward disciplinary approaches to poverty management. In this article, we investigate how implicit racial biases and discrediting social markers interact to shape officials' decisions to impose sanctions. We present experimental evidence based on hypothetical vignettes that case managers are more likely to recommend sanctions for Latina and black clients - but not white clients - when discrediting markers are present. We triangulate these findings with analyses of state administrative data. Our results for Latinas are mixed, but we find consistent evidence that the probability of a sanction rises significantly when a discrediting marker (i.e., a prior sanction for noncompliance) is attached to a black rather than a white welfare client. Overall, our study clarifies how racial minorities, especially African Americans, are more likely to be punished for deviant behavior in the new world of disciplinary welfare provision.
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Cases of child abuse and neglect that involve black children are reported to and substantiated by public child welfare agencies at a rate approximately twice that of cases that involve white children. A range of studies have been performed to assess the degree to which this racial disproportionality is attributable to racial bias in physicians, nurses, and other professionals mandated to report suspected child victimization. The prevailing current explanation posits that the presence of bias among reporters and within the child welfare system has led to the current large overrepresentation of black children. A competing explanation is that overrepresentation of black children is mainly the consequence of increased exposure to risk factors such as poverty. We tested the competing models by using data drawn from national child welfare and public health sources. We compared racial disproportionality ratios on rates of victimization from official child welfare organizations to rates of key public health outcomes not subject to the same potential biases (eg, general infant mortality). We found that racial differences in victimization rate data from the official child welfare system are consistent with known differences for other child outcomes. We also found evidence supporting the presence of cultural protective factors for Hispanic children, termed the "Hispanic paradox." Although our findings do not preclude the possibility of racial bias, these findings suggest that racial bias in reporting and in the child welfare system are not large-scale drivers of racial disproportionality. Our data suggest that reduction of black/white racial disproportionality in the child welfare system can best be achieved by a public health approach to reducing underlying risk factors that affect black families.
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Data from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-being, a national probability study of children and families investigated for child maltreatment, were analyzed to answer the question: Do substantiated and unsubstantiated cases differ in rates of recidivism over 36 months? Recidivism was classified as (a) any re-reports, (b) substantiated re-reports and (c) subsequent foster care placements. Bivariate (survivor functions estimated by the Kaplan-Meier method) and multivariate (Cox regression modeling) analyses were conducted. The results revealed that risk of recidivism was similar regardless of substantiation status of the index investigation. We suggest that the substantiation label be removed from field use. Instead, we suggest that agencies record service needs in the families they serve, and also record whether or not the family meets criteria for referral to the family court. These would be far more practical and meaningful ways to measure child welfare services.
It is widely assumed among researchers and policy makers that poverty increases children's exposure to professional reporters (e.g., social service providers) causing more reports to be made. This is sometimes called “Class-Based Visibility Bias” (CBVB) and the literature is consistent in placing this effect exclusively among professional reporters. To the degree that large CBVB effects exist, there must therefore be a higher proportion of reports from professionals as poverty increases. We examined this relationship using statewide individual-level data in four states (Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, and New Hampshire) and nationwide county-level data. Contrary to expectations, increasing poverty was not associated with increases in the proportions of reports from professionals in either individual- or county-level data. In fact, at both individual and county levels, there was a consistent tendency toward a slightly lower proportion of reports from professionals with increasing poverty, holding true across all racial/ethnic groups and maltreatment subtypes. We see two plausible explanations. First, it is theoretically possible that CBVB may be present both among professionals and nonprofessionals, but may be slightly stronger among nonprofessionals. This would require a fundamental reworking of existing CBVB theory, as there is no currently postulated rationale for why CBVB would apply to nonprofessionals such as families, friends, and neighbors. The second possible explanation is that CBVB is not a primary driver of official maltreatment reports, and that concerns about CBVB effects have been overblown. Given the recently emerging scientific consensus that the poverty/maltreatment relationship is largely real, and not a function of reporting bias, the second explanation may be more plausible.
In Punishing the Poor, I show that the ascent of the penal state in the United States and other advanced societies over the past quarter-century is a response to rising social insecurity, not criminal insecurity; that changes in welfare and justice policies are interlinked, as restrictive “workfare” and expansive “prisonfare” are coupled into a single organizational contraption to discipline the precarious fractions of the postindustrial working class; and that a diligent carceral system is not a deviation from, but a constituent component of, the neoliberal Leviathan. In this article, I draw out the theoretical implications of this diagnosis of the emerging government of social insecurity. I deploy Bourdieu’s concept of “bureaucratic field” to revise Piven and Cloward’s classic thesis on the regulation of poverty via public assistance, and contrast the model of penalization as technique for the management of urban marginality to Michel Foucault’s vision of the “disciplinary society,” David Garland’s account of the “culture of control,” and David Harvey’s characterization of neoliberal politics. Against the thin economic conception of neoliberalism as market rule, I propose a thick sociological specification entailing supervisory workfare, a proactive penal state, and the cultural trope of “individual responsibility.” This suggests that we must theorize the prison not as a technical implement for law enforcement, but as a core political capacity whose selective and aggressive deployment in the lower regions of social space violates the ideals of democratic citizenship.
Review and expunction of central registries and reporting records
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2014). Review and expunction of central registries and reporting records.
Disclosure of confidential child abuse and neglect records
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2017). Disclosure of confidential child abuse and neglect records. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau.
  • Lee Matter Of
Matter of Lee TT, 87 N.Y.2d 699 (1996).