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It’s far too easy to be labeled a child abuser in Pennsylvania, lawsuit claims

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Julio Cortez
/
AP

Thousands of parents and caregivers in Pennsylvania are unfairly labeled as child abusers before they’re able to defend themselves, according to a lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court by parents, caregivers, and community organizations.

People accused of child abuse can be listed offenders before they’ve had a hearing, which is a violation of due process and the right to reputation under Pennsylvania’s constitution, the lawsuit says.

The current system damages peoples’ reputations and prevents employment, particularly in the daycare and healthcare fields, according to the lawsuit. Women of color are disproportionately surveilled and impacted, attorneys for the plaintiffs say.

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“It doubles down on the racial bias that exists on the front end, and just excludes women of color from a whole swath of employment opportunities in fields that, especially now, are facing dire worker shortages,” said Jamie Gullen, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. She is managing attorney of the Employment Unit and Youth Justice Project at Community Legal Services.

The lawsuit asks that the court require the state to provide notice to those accused of child abuse, and provide them an opportunity to respond to accusations before their name is listed on the registry. Several other states, including neighboring Delaware, offer these due processes, the attorneys say. They’re also asking that their clients — a community organization and five individuals — be removed from the registry until they receive due process.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Human Services said they cannot comment on pending litigation.

The allegations against parents and caregivers often arise from situations like missed doctor appointments, accidental injuries, or medical conditions with unknown causes, the attorneys say.

In 2021, the state received more than 788,000 requests to have names cleared from the registry. Of those who were granted a hearing, 90% of them were able to get their report overturned, said attorney Tad LeVan, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

“Our point is, if those hearings were held before somebody’s name was on the list, rather than afterwards, they wouldn’t have all of the reputational and employment harms that were happening in the interim,” he said.

Though people who are wrongly accused of child abuse can appeal to get their names removed, the process can take up to two years. Many people on the list don’t even know their rights, the attorneys said. One of the petitioners has been on the registry for 15 years because of an accidental injury that her child sustained. Until recently, she didn’t understand her rights to a hearing, and is now struggling to find employment in the healthcare sector.

“There are a number of specific types of industries that absolutely prohibit employers from hiring anyone whose name is listed on the registry,” LeVan said. “It’s kind of a double whammy for a lot of these people, and ultimately, is harmful to a lot of the kids, because their parents can’t make a living and bring in the income necessary to help them survive.”

He adds that the lawsuit would not prevent the state from investigating abuse or from protecting children.

“I certainly understand the need for children to be protected,” LeVan said. “We just think that the state needs to do so in a constitutionally permissible way.”

Read more from our partners, WHYY.