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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

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COMMENTARY
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,
2018).
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
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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
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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@
hunter.cuny.edu.
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). ...
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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).