Ending the State Central Register
By Emma Peyton Williams & Erica R. Meiners | October 4, 2019
Elise is a single mother raising her 9-year-old daughter, Lucia, in Queens, New York. After weeks of hearing that other third graders are taunting her daughter, Elise confronts her child’s teacher, Ellen, about her failure to respond to bullying in the classroom. Following a heated exchange, Ellen makes an anonymous report to the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), New York’s child welfare agency. Ellen tells ACS that Elise is verbally abusive to her daughter.
ACS interviews Lucia while she’s at school and away from her mother, examines Lucia’s body for bruises, and searches Elise’s home. ACS is empowered by the state to investigate any allegation of abuse for up to 90 days. Even after this heightened surveillance, no abuse is discovered. Relieved, Elise and Lucia try to move on and forget about the past three months.
A decade later, Elise is laid off from her job. While looking for a new employer, Elise completes a mandatory background check. She fails the background check because the ACS investigation a decade earlier had, without her knowledge, put her on the New York Statewide Central Register (SCR). Although the allegations against Elise were never substantiated, in New York all ACS investigations—substantiated or not—lead to placement on the SCR, a register maintained by ACS that records any allegations of child abuse and neglect, regardless of an investigation’s outcome.
Registries for Caregivers
Elise is a composite figure, based on real-life examples offered by Joyce McMillan, an advocate for parents on the SCR through her organization JMacForFamilies and the Family Coordinator of Sinergia’s “We Are Parents Too,” a program for parents with developmental disabilities.
Although many of us are familiar with public registries for people with convictions for sex offenses, state registries for child maltreatment allegations are less well known. It is not widely understood, for example, that the SCR can be accessed as part of any routine background check, and that caregivers remain on the list until ten years after their youngest child turns 18.
The SCR can be accessed as part of any routine background check, and that caregivers remain on the list until ten years after their youngest child turns 18.
In the United States, 47 states have some type of “register” to track both allegations and convictions of child maltreatment. Approximately 27,000 people are on the SCR in New York and, although no demographic breakdown is available, research illustrates that Black youth are over-represented in state child welfare systems.
Recent data from the American Journal of Public Health documents that fifty-three percent of all Black children in the US will experience a child protective services investigation before they are 18; our research indicates that registries like the SCR exacerbate this disparity. Organizers like McMillan are committed to exposing the overrepresentation of Black caregivers on the SCR and the life-changing consequences of this form of stigma and surveillance.
What’s wrong with the SCR?
Despite their ubiquity, registries are public policy and public safety failures. There is no evidence that any registry reduces harm or promotes public safety. In fact, the available research points in the opposite direction: registries engender more isolation and stress and can facilitate harm by creating barriers to employment and housing, as well as by promoting stigma and shame.
Registries engender more isolation and stress and can facilitate harm by creating barriers to employment and housing, as well as by promoting stigma and shame.
McMillan’s critiques of registries are multiple and clear. There is no due process to determine whether someone should be registered and people are not notified of their placement on a registry. Furthermore, reports are anonymous and always viewed as legitimate; yet anyone can make a report, including those with malicious or retaliatory intentions. Given the long history of abusers using custody threats as a way to maintain power and control over intimate partner violence survivors, it’s clear that registries can likewise be weaponized, particularly against poor women of color.
In addition to the opaque process of placement on the SCR, the consequences of being listed are amplified by the other punitive systems that caregivers must negotiate. McMillan describes a snowball effect in which being registered hinders finding employment which leads to longer job searches and unemployment.
Financial instability affects a caregiver’s ability to afford childcare while they are job hunting, or prevents access to the internet and a computer, which can impact their job search and their child’s performance in school. Access to public housing, which might be conditional on the number of occupants, can be destabilized for families if dependents are removed, leading to homelessness. Under conditions like these, regaining custody is nearly impossible.
Of course, registries like the SCR are just one facet of interwoven systems and practices that are inseperable from misogyny, racism, and classism: policing, borders, surveillance, and imprisonment. These interwoven systems, together, constitute a racialized carceral state.
These interwoven systems, together, constitute a racialized carceral state.
Yet all too often, because of the mask of “child protection,” carceral systems such as the SCR are not made visible in organizing and analysis surrounding our prison industrial complex.
Building Support for All Caregivers and Children
For McMillan and many others who have experienced the SCR or support people who have been registered, the solution is straightforward: enable young people and their caregivers to find jobs, secure housing, and avoid state surveillance by ending the SCR. Although critics might be quick to dismiss this solution as impractical, or inattentive to the harms of child abuse, research informs us that the current arrangement of power via state surveillance is life-threatening.
Even for the very small number of children who are at real risk of abuse (in 2017, less than 2% of reports were for “abuse alone”), state-based child and family services are not a pathway to safety, support, or a flourishing life. Young people in the child and family protection systems have extremely concerning life outcomes that raise serious questions about whether and how state systems create safe and supportive environments. Indeed, more than half of youth in state-based child and family services systems will experience arrest, conviction, or an overnight stay in a correctional facility by the age of 17.
In addition to recognizing what happens when young people enter the child welfare system, it is important to note which young people are getting referred. In 2017, 73% of allegations were due to neglect – often a code word for poverty – and 60% of those allegations were ultimately determined to be unfounded.
McMillan’s organization is one among many, including the new national network Movement for Family Power, calling for the abolition of state-based registries and, more broadly, an end to punitive child removal systems. McMillan encourages readers to both listen to and share their own experiences using these hashtags: #PovertyIsNotNeglect; #SurveillanceIsNotSupport; #SeparationIsNotSafe.
Systemic change won’t come from only dismantling the SCR; we must also challenge the racism that is embedded in, and exceeds, this system. For example, the majority of allegations of neglect and abuse come from disproportionately white professionals: According to the United States Children’s Bureau, “Three-fifths (62.7 percent) of all reports of alleged child abuse or neglect were made by professionals…The most common professional report sources were legal and law enforcement personnel (18.1 percent), education personnel (17.7 percent), social services staff (11.0 percent).”
Systemic change won’t come from only dismantling the SCR; we must also challenge the racism that is embedded in, and exceeds, this system.
Whether white people are calling the police on Black families BBQ-ing in parks, on a Black man trying to open his own front door, or on a young Black girl selling water on the street, it is critical for white people (including white professionals) to name and end the “common sense” cultural practice of triggering state interventions. Research demonstrates that, rather than correcting harms, state interventions and surveillance cause direct harm to people of color, including children, who are swept up in state sytems.
The many facets of child protective services – registries, foster care, and child removal – are not ending violence towards children. It is time to think creatively and critically about the state institutions we have historically relied on to resolve issues of neglect, abuse, poverty, family disruption, and cyclical surveillance. Organizations like the Movement for Family Power and Every Mother is a Working Mother Network’s sponsored campaign DHS: Give Us Back Our Children!, are leading the way to abolish the interlocking systems of child protection, policing, and racialized surveillance.
Emma Peyton Williams is a Research and Policy Consultant at the National LGBTQ Institute on Intimate Partner Violence; a Senior Project Manager at University Without Walls Cohort/Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project; and a Research Coordinator at Black and Pink Chicago.
Erica R. Meiners is the Bernard J. Brommel Distinguished Research Professor of Education and Women’s and Gender Studies at Northeastern Illinois University. She is the author of For the Children: Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State (University of Minnesota, 2016) and co-editor of The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences, Working Toward Freedom (Haymarket Books, 2018).
Featured image by Fredrik Walløe, licensed under Creative Commons.