By Keyna Franklin, Rise Parent Leader, and Sara Werner, Rise Contributor
Advocate Joyce McMillan tells Rise: “The little black girl from Brooklyn who has been on the registry since 1999 and has just been frustrated with the system since I first came in contact with it, has finally done something to try to even the playing field for families, instead of families just being bulldozed and mistreated.”
On April 3, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that will bring relief to parents accused of neglect. The bill makes it harder to list parents on the State Central Registry (SCR) and limits the time that parents can be listed for neglect, which can affect employment. Parents and advocates have been pushing for years to reform the way the SCR works in order to reduce its harmful impact on families and communities.
Parents are on the SCR as “indicated” for neglect when the child welfare system believes there is evidence that the allegations are true. Before this bill, New York was one of a handful of states with the lowest standard of evidence required to place parents on the registry. In addition, indicated cases stayed on your record until the youngest child named in the report was 28 years old. That could prevent parents from getting a job working with children, becoming a foster parent, adopting a child, or getting custody of their own children.
Here, Joyce McMillan, family coordinator at Sinergia and founder of PLAN (Parent Legislative Action Network), explains the new law and the advocacy that led to its passage.
Q: Can you explain the SCR reforms that were passed in the state budget bill?
A: There were four changes included in this legislation:
One is the change from requiring that the child welfare agency show “some credible evidence” to requiring a “preponderance of evidence,” meaning they raised the standard higher so that it will be harder to place you on the registry. They will need more evidence to put you on the SCR.
Another is that eight years after a neglect charge, you are going to automatically come off the registry. This is the biggest thing to me, considering parents now have to wait until their youngest child turns 28.
Third, when the new legislation goes into effect, you will be able to introduce evidence of rehabilitation at a fair hearing. We could always have a fair hearing, but we couldn’t present new evidence of how we rehabilitated ourselves.
As an example, say your child was removed or ACS came into your life because of substance use. You have completed a substance program. You refrained from using illicit substances for two years. You are looking for a job now. You can actually show evidence that you have been “rehabilitated” and have a higher chance of being removed from the SCR. Prior to this piece of legislation, you could not show any relevant rehabilitation.
Last but not least: What happens now is that if a family goes to court and goes to trial and the judge does not find them guilty of the charges, ACS can still put you on the SCR. With this legislation, that will not happen any longer. If the judge says “not guilty”, you will not be put on the SCR.
Q: What was the process of getting this bill passed? How long did it take?
A: The process was figuring out what we wanted to change, drafting it, finding an assembly person and senator to sponsor it, and then organizing around it — Rise and others supporting the idea of the change and utilizing their platforms so more people become aware of how parents are affected by the registry. It was a collaborative effort with everyone playing a part in making this day a glorious day. It took us close to 2 years, which I hear is remarkable because a lot of state bills take 5 years or more. It seemed like a long time but we got it done, so everyone should give themselves a pat on the back for all that each person contributed.
Q: Why is it important that the standard of evidence will be raised from “some credible evidence” to a “preponderance of evidence”?
A: “Some credible evidence” is not a legal standard accepted in family court.. The legal standard in family court is a “preponderance of evidence,” which means something actually is found that points to the accusation being true. The SCR has been operating beneath that legal standard. Until now, it required only “credible evidence,” which is basically just believing the accusation that was made, trusting the mandated reporter. The child welfare system felt someone made the claim for a reason, so even if they couldn’t prove it, it was worth putting someone on the registry for 28 years to ensure the safety of any child they may come into contact with.
When this legislation goes into effect in 2022, to put a parent on the registry, they will have to go a step further with a “preponderance of evidence.” There has to be something to substantiate that claim. Fewer people will go on the registry. Because we were operating below the family court legal standard, the majority went on the registry. Hopefully, changing the standard will mean that we don’t put people on the registry as a “better safe than sorry” tactic.
I hope the child welfare system will begin to get in the mindset of using this new standard even prior to the effective date because it is the right thing to do. We shouldn’t have to force people to do what is right. We should do what is right because it is right.
Q: What will this legislation change for families who do have an “indicated” case?
A: It changes people’s ability to become employed, have financial capabilities to care for their families, and possibly get some distance from being system-involved. Maybe people are relying on food stamps or other benefits because they are unable to be employed. This piece of legislation gives you more of an opportunity to be employed because: 1) you drop off the registry in 8 years for a neglect case; and 2) you have the opportunity to ask to come off the registry prior to that. You can show evidence of why you should come off the registry–things you have done to improve your life since ACS came into your life. That means people won’t be staying on the registry for as long as they have in the past. To me, it is just a relief for families and I hope it allows moms, especially single moms, to get back to work.
I’m still on the registry. My youngest child is 20 years old. With how it works now, I would be on the registry for the next 7 ½ years until she turns 28. With this legislation, I would have been off by the time she turned 8, if I didn’t appeal to get off earlier than that. That’s a huge difference.
Q: What has been the impact and harm of the way the SCR operates now?
A: The harm has been that it has forced people to remain in poverty. Many people come under the scope of the child welfare system because of reasons related to poverty that are framed as neglect. It can be a simple thing like, “I left my child at home while I went to the laundromat.” Maybe someone who had more financial resources would not have left their child at home while they went to the laundromat or to work or wherever. Or its lack of food in the home. Or children miss school days because the school gives the child a bus pass or train pass, but the child is too young to travel on their own and no one has given money to the parent to take the child. So the child misses an excessive number of days and that becomes educational neglect. It’s a lot of poverty that just kind of expands into neglect and puts people on the registry. I believe this change will prevent this cycle from happening because parents will have more financial resources at their fingertips through more opportunities to work.
Q: Does the new legislation affect current and/or past cases?
A: It affects current and past cases. That’s the tricky part.
Raising the standard of evidence is not a piece of the legislation that is retroactive. That will only affect cases moving forward.
But the length of time on the registry will impact past cases. Once this goes into effect, anyone who has been on the registry for neglect cases for 8 years or more will automatically drop off the registry. That does not apply to abuse cases.
Unfortunately, the new legislation will not go into effect until January 2022.
Q: Starting in January 2022, will parents have a new opportunity to present evidence at a fair hearing? Is there anything parents can be doing to prepare?
A: If parents want to come off the registry before 8 years, anything a parent is doing right now to better their life and improve the life of their children will be relevant when they have a hearing.
A parent might say, “I found a job, so leaving the child at home without a babysitter won’t happen anymore. I’m employed and I’m able to pay for a sitter.” They can bring that information to the hearing. Anything they did to rehabilitate themselves and improve their lives can be introduced as evidence to show that whatever the issue was, it is something that is no longer going to affect their life moving forward. They can say, “You know what? It’s three years in but I’ve done this, this, and this, and I want to come off the registry. This is a job I want to do, and this is affecting that. Let’s evaluate it.”
As an example, when I started a new job, OCFS (NYS Office of Children and Family Services) sent my employer a letter saying I was still on the registry. My boss knew me for a number of years, so it didn’t create a disruption in my employment. But if it were going to create a disruption, with the new legislation, I could ask for a fair hearing at that time. A lot of people aren’t aware they are on the registry until they apply for employment and get that letter back from OCFS.
One of the things employers don’t know is it is really at their discretion to hire someone on the registry (or not let them go if they are already working there). Employers are either not aware of that or are unwilling to take responsibility and say, “I don’t think they are going to do anything wrong, and if they do, I’ll be responsible.” They don’t want to take that chance.
Q: What is PLAN and how did PLAN work on this bill? How were parents and advocates involved in developing the bill and pushing for it to pass?
A: PLAN is the Parent Legislative Action Network. We tried to hear from parents about what was important, what was affecting them, and what they would like to see happen that would bring relief to their families, in order to incorporate that into the legislation. Parents and advocates met and discussed what makes sense and why it makes sense and is so important.
We used these meetings and discussions to come to an agreement within the coalition about what we would all support. That’s the thing about a coalition–it’s not one person’s voice. Everyone’s voice is kind of equally weighted. I always say the parents’ voice has more power. Together, we came to an agreement of what we would ask for and we did.
Q: How can parents get involved in making other changes to child welfare policy?
A: Be part of PLAN. Be part of the conversations we are having about moving forward and what other pieces of legislation can relate to what just passed in a significant way and push for it. You can send an email to email@example.com with “Join PLAN” in the subject line.
I believe this bill passing is what hope looks like. It says that what many people told us was impossible is actually possible if we come together and work together to create the changes that we see we need.
Q: How do you feel about the SCR reforms passing?
A: I feel very excited, very excited. Kind of numb because it’s surreal. The little black girl from Brooklyn who has been on the registry since 1999 and has just been frustrated with the system since I first came in contact with it, has finally done something to try to even the playing field for families, instead of families just being bulldozed and mistreated.
I think all of us are legislators, capable of creating legislation. We don’t have to be victims of the system. We can come together to make changes. It makes me feel really good that we did that. I say “we” because while it might have been my brainchild, I didn’t do it alone. Everyone played a part.
I hope this bill passing is the encouragement we need to continue to ask for what we need for our communities — the hope to say we can do this again.
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