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Pennsylvania tracks child abuse in ways that could be unfair, and long-lasting, study says

The Pennsylvania State Capitol building.
Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA

A single mother who runs a hair salon business in her house was busy and did not notice when her 1-year-old son grabbed a hot hair curling iron. She tended to the burns with first aid supplies, but did not seek immediate medical care. The next day, the injury became worse and the child had to be hospitalized..

Another parent got into an argument with her teenage daughter because she did not want her communicating with a certain person. The next day, the daughter told her school that her mother choked her, though the daughter did not provide evidence.

These are stories of some parents who landed on Pennsylvania’s ChildLine and Abuse Registry, and they are included in a new study that looks at how the state’s child abuse reporting system could be contributing to systemic socio-economic disadvantages for Black families.

The study found that Black Pennsylvanians are twice as likely to be on the state’s child abuse registry. Between 2015 and 2021, Black people, who make up 12% of the state’s general population, represented an average of 22% of child abuse investigations and an average of 23% of substantiated cases. All substantiated cases are recommended for placement on the registry. Among Black parents or caretakers listed in the registry, neglect tends to be the most common reason they are accused of child abuse, the study found.

White Pennsylvanians, who make up about 82% of the population, made up an average of 65% of all child abuse investigations and 66% of people with substantiated cases.

Moreover, the analysis found that the majority of people on the state child abuse registry tend to be young. Between 2015 through 2021, Pennsylvanians between ages 15 and 39 made up 75% of substantiated cases on the registry, and on average 42% of those involved people under 30.

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The research was conducted by students and faculty members in the Civil Practice Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic at the Sheller Center for Social Justice at the Temple University Beasley School of Law.

Researchers point to different reasons why Black parents are reported for child abuse and neglect at a higher rate. One of those reasons is the discretion caseworkers are given to determine what constitutes physical neglect. Researchers found that some caseworkers were flagging people for neglect for leaving children unsupervised for brief lapses of time, sometimes as short as 15 minutes.

Neglect investigations often lack clear benchmarks for determining what is a failure to provide adequate life essentials or a failure to supervise, said Jennifer Lee, professor of law at Temple University and a lead researcher in the study. Caseworkers sometimes do not differentiate between a lack of resources and actual neglect.

“People end up in those situations, often because they lack resources, because they’re poor. People who tend not to have great support systems and access to childcare, they might be found to fail to supervise because they left their homes,” Lee said.

Racial bias in the reporting process and negative assumptions about Black parenting might also explain why Black people are being added to the state’s child abuse registry at a higher rate. Researchers point to another study at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where Black children were found to be evaluated and reported for suspected child abuse. Another national study based on aggregate data from the National Trauma Data Bank, found that healthcare workers were more likely to identify Black children as potential victims of abuse.

Jamie Gullen, managing attorney of the employment unit and Youth Justice Project at Community Legal Services, said her clients’ stories prompted the need for an in-depth study into why people of color are more likely to be reported for alleged child abuse.

“For decades, we’ve seen that placement on the ChildLine registry presents huge barriers to employment for low income workers and our client population. We see that the vast majority of the clients who come to us with this problem are Black and Brown women,” Gullen said.

Usually, people call ChildLine, a statewide hotline, to report allegations of child abuse and neglect. The child protection agency in that county then opens an investigation into the allegations and has 60 days to determine whether a report is unfounded or indicated. When a caseworker classifies a report as indicated or substantiated, it means that he or she thinks there is evidence that abuse or neglect occurred.

The person suspected of abuse is placed on the state child abuse registry. A person can be on the child abuse registry even before having the chance to defend themselves in court, though they can appeal within 90 days.

A person can be on the registry for life, even if they are found not guilty.

“Parents get their kids back or never have their kids removed, but they’re still on the registry. It means they can’t work in a whole wide range of jobs to better support their kids. They can’t volunteer with their kids’ school or chaperone trips,” Gullen said.

The study also examines why more employers are requiring child abuse clearances from job applicants, and how that can bar people from accessing higher paying jobs. Employers are legally required to request child abuse clearance if the job involves direct contact with children, but in Pennsylvania there are no guidelines as to what kind of employer can request such clearances.

“It’s not really a regulated system. Any employer can require somebody to have a child abuse clearance," Lee said. “What we found in talking to certain employers is that there were employers that were requesting child abuse clearances when people were applying for jobs that had nothing to do with children.”

For example, some employers are requesting clearances for administrative jobs at hospitals and even warehouse jobs, Lee said. Sometimes employers might justify asking for a clearance “on the off chance that the warehouses may be located near a school.”

Child abuse concerns in the wake of the Sandusky scandal led to a 162% spike in requests between 2014 and 2015. Since then, more employers are requiring a child abuse clearance as part of the application process. Researchers found that 49% more child abuse clearances were requested in 2021 than in 2010.

There have been recent legal challenges to the state’s child abuse registry.

In a lawsuit against Pennsylvania’s ChildLine registry, the Commonwealth Court ruled in July that teachers must have a hearing before being placed in the child abuse registry. A group of parents, caregivers and nonprofit Community Legal Services also sued the state Department of Human services, alleging that ChildLine is unconstitutional.

Read more from our partners, WITF.