By Keyna Franklin, Assistant Editor and Sara Werner, Contributor
States track records of parents who have been investigated by child protective services and accused of neglecting or abusing their children. A parent can be “indicated” for maltreatment even if they have never been charged with a crime or faced a judge. Nationwide, millions of parents – disproportionately Black and Latinx parents – experience employment barriers due to a child abuse registry record, even when there is no child safety concern.
Here, Washcarina Martinez Alonzo and Jeanette Vega explain how these records impact hundreds of thousands of Black and brown parents—and how you can get your record sealed and amended so it is not a barrier to employment.
Washcarina Martinez Alonzo is an Economic Justice Attorney at Manhattan Legal Services and Jeanette Vega is the Assistant Director for Training and Policy at Rise. They will be presenting information for parents about the SCR on Facebook on Wednesday, Dec. 16 at 1:00 pm.
Please note that nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.
Q. What is the State Central Register (SCR)?
Washcarina Martinez Alonzo: The State Central Register is a database run by the NY State Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) that houses reports of abuse and maltreatment for the State of New York, based on calls made to the state hotline that are investigated and found “indicated” — meaning that the investigator believes there is some evidence of child neglect or abuse. The standard of evidence required for a person to be placed on the registry will be higher in 2022 when recently passed legislation takes effect, but right now it is very low.
Q. How can being on the SCR affect you?
Martinez Alonzo: It primarily affects people’s ability to get or keep meaningful work because at times employers make decisions based on the outcomes of SCR searches. If you are interested in working with vulnerable people — children, elderly people, or people with disabilities – a prospective employer may check the SCR to see if you have an indicated history of abuse or neglect. In 2018, the SCR processed 316,000 employment checks – meaning that employers checked whether someone who applied for a job is on the SCR.
70-80% of all abuse and maltreatment cases in New York City are for maltreatment, which is the legal term for neglect. Most cases are for poverty-related neglect – not someone being abusive. Is it neglect when a 12-year-old child is left at home because the parent has work, the child is safe and the neighbor is checking on them? If the parent doesn’t have an income and can’t provide for their child, they might end up on the SCR, as well.
Q. If you are on the SCR, what are the steps for getting your record “sealed” and “amended”?
Martinez Alonzo: If you have an unfounded report and no credible evidence of abuse or maltreatment was found, you don’t have to do anything.
If your letter says there is an indicated, founded or substantiated report of abuse or neglect based on “some credible evidence”, pay attention to the date of the letter. You only have 90 days to appeal. That is a short window, particularly if you are in crisis. Check that you received the letter around the time it is dated. If the date passed long before the letter got to you, you can challenge the notification.
Within 3 months, you can write OCFS a letter that says, “I challenge the report and request that you amend it to “unfounded” and seal my record. If the record is not sealed and amended, I request a hearing.” This will preserve your right to a hearing where you can make your case to a judge. Typically, the address that you write to is on the second page of the letter.
Next, there is an administrative review process. About 20-25% of the cases that OCFS looks at in the administrative review process are “amended” — changed to unfounded — and sealed. The great majority are sent on to a hearing.
During your hearing, you can provide evidence of “rehabilitation.” This means that you can introduce the steps you have taken to prevent whatever allegedly happened from happening again. The administrative judge in your case will then review that evidence of rehabilitation in their evaluation of whether your report is reasonably related to working with children or other vulnerable populations. If the judge determines that the report is not relevant, your record can be sealed.
Q. What can parents do to prepare for a seal and amend hearing?
Martinez Alonzo: Judges often ask about what you are doing to stop whatever the case was about from happening again and how you have overcome the circumstances that led to the report. As an advocate, part of what I have to show the judge is that this was a one-off incident that won’t happen again.
It is helpful to collect all the information you can to show that. ACS may have referred you to services. A judge may ask, “Did you engage in those services?” If you are not engaging in those services, the question becomes, “What services did you use? Did you find other help or find your own counselor?” If your case was for poverty-related neglect, you might say, “I was able to secure help so this doesn’t happen again.”
I help parents prepare for these hearings. Some parents feel, “If I do this, it’s like admitting that I’m guilty.” One parent said, “I didn’t accept preventive services because I didn’t do this. I was unfairly targeted — but I would love to go to counseling.” In that case, to show that she was receiving assistance, that parent had her counselor write a letter. If you are engaging in assistance outside of the services ACS suggests, keep track of the things you are doing. If you participate in parent groups, keep documentation. Even if you are doing these things for your own well-being rather than to stay off the SCR, it will help your case. During COVID, it is extra difficult to access and preserve information. I encourage you to keep certificates, get letters, save documents.
Q. What emotional and legal support is available to parents in navigating these processes?
Martinez Alonzo: MLS provides legal support. We do our best to help as many people as possible — whether or not we take their case. Depending on where you live in the city, different organizations can support you at the indicated report stage. You can also contact a legal organization during an investigation for representation and advocacy on the front end.
The child welfare system is a big mountain to go up against. It can be traumatic to go through this process, and often a traumatic experience initially placed people on the SCR. Some people engage in support services to get ACS off their backs or to show a judge that they are addressing a situation. Some parents do it because they find it helpful. I am partial to counseling, parent groups and circles and group trainings. I encourage engaging in whatever emotional support you need. Keep in mind that some folks who provide support are mandated reporters.
Vega: At Rise, we have an online parent-led community support group for parents in NYC who have had a child welfare or preventive case. In the group, parents can share information, learn about their rights, support other parents and exchange suggestions for navigating their case or the child welfare system in general.
Q: Is OCFS required to tell you if you are on the SCR?
Martinez Alonzo: If the investigator “indicates” your case, OCFS is supposed to tell you what you are accused of and how to defend yourself. OCFS mails you a letter that says that you are on the SCR because an investigation found some evidence of abuse or maltreatment. (Maltreatment means neglect under the law.) You have 90 days from receiving the letter to challenge your record.
However, not everyone receives the letter in time to respond or at all. Often, investigations happen in times of crisis. People move or they might be living in a shelter where they cannot get mail. If a letter is sent to an address you do not reside at, we may challenge it as “inadequate notice.”
Jeanette Vega: Sometimes parents get a letter and don’t understand what it is about or that there is an action step that you need to take to prevent this from going on your record. It’s important for parents to realize that you can seal and amend your record or request a fair hearing.
Q. How can you find out if you are on the SCR if you aren’t sure?
Martinez Alonzo: You can request your records from the SCR to see if there was a report against you and whether it was founded or unfounded. If you see a substantiated or indicated report on your record, that means you are on the SCR. If there was a report and it was unfounded, you’ll see that, too. A small number of people think they have a record but find out that they don’t.
If your record shows a founded report, you can write to tell them, “I never got a notice saying that I had a founded report. I could have been fighting this all along but I didn’t know about it. I want to challenge the record.” They will evaluate it to decide whether they will reopen it.
You might also find out that you’re on the SCR if an employer does a background check. If your case was founded, you will receive a letter stating that a potential employer checked your background and found an indicated report. This can happen at any time – it could be years after the alleged incident of abuse or maltreatment. Again, you have 90 days to challenge that report. To do so, you write a similar letter to the same address to preserve your right to a hearing. In this type of hearing, referred to as a 424 hearing, you can challenge the report and request that they seal your record based on the facts, but you aren’t able to present new evidence about what has changed over time. That will change for neglect cases in January 2022.
Q. If you are investigated and your case is unfounded, will your name be on the registry?
Martinez Alonzo: If they found no credible evidence of abuse or maltreatment, the report will be on the SCR, but cannot be used against you. If there is a new report and investigation and ACS says, “She had a previous report,” as a person who advocates for parents, I’ll say, “The report is not relevant because it was unfounded or unsubstantiated.” In other words, the ACS investigation revealed that the subject parent did nothing wrong.
An unfounded report is sealed to an employer doing a background check — they can’t see it.
Q. Does ACS have the ability to see “sealed” records? Can a “sealed” case can be used against you in a new investigation?
Martinez Alonzo: ACS has the ability to see “sealed” records. In my experience, when a subject parent requests their records from the SCR, all of their previous reports come up. Whether or not those prior cases are brought up at a hearing depends on the ACS attorney and whether that “sealed” record was founded or unfounded.
Q. Does being listed on the SCR affect how you can be involved in your child’s school?
Vega: I wasn’t allowed to go on some school trips with my son. The school said that I wasn’t allowed to chaperone other children. But in a recent meeting I had with OCFS, they said that isn’t a restriction of the SCR – parents should be allowed to do school activities and field trips with their children. Other adults are present. Being on the SCR shouldn’t restrict parents from doing anything with their children at school.
Q. Who can access the information in the SCR?
Martinez Alonzo: It is not a public database where you can search someone’s name and see the results. Only specific people have access to the database and for specific reasons.
As the subject of an investigation, you can access your own records. Parents can access information related to their minor children. Oftentimes, when advocates request records (after the parent has provided written consent), they ask for the records of both the parent and their minor children. Unless a child is themselves the subject of an investigation based on a report to the SCR, they can’t access a record that relates to the parent.
Family court practitioners, ACS investigators and foster care agency staff who evaluate parental fitness can access the records. Police officers can access that data in some circumstances. Employers don’t have direct access, but employers that hire people to work or volunteer with vulnerable populations have the power to ask someone to check the database for them.
Q. Governor Cuomo signed a bill to change the SCR. What will change when that bill goes into effect in 2022?
Martinez Alonzo: Substantively the bill has four major changes. The first is changing the standard for a person to be listed on the SCR from “some” to a “preponderance” of evidence, presumably limiting the number of parents on the SCR in the first place. The second is limiting the number of years a person remains on the SCR for cases of neglect to eight years. Currently a person remains listed on the SCR until the youngest child in the report turns 28. The third is allowing evidence of rehabilitation in all SCR fair hearings, including 424 hearings. Fourth, and last, the bill makes it so that if a family court judge finds that a person did not neglect or abuse a child, that said finding also has bearing on the SCR listing. Currently, even if a family court judge makes a finding that there was no abuse or neglect a person would still have to clear their SCR record before an administrative judge.
Q. What is the role of racism in the disproportionate rate of indicated cases of Black and Latinx parents? How does the SCR impact Black and brown communities?
Martinez Alonzo: The impact of the SCR is overwhelmingly tilted against Black and brown people in New York City. Poor people have more interactions with mandated reporters. Black and brown people are heavily policed. A colleague of mine said, “Black and brown men were disproportionately stopped and frisked. Black and brown women are disproportionately affected by the child welfare system and its policing.”
Although 65% of people in New York State are white, they represent only 6% of people on the SCR. Latinx people are 18% of the population and 37% of indicated reports. Black people are 14% of the population and 38% of people with indicated reports.
Because of this, Black and Latinx people have a more difficult time getting work. Child welfare evaluates your ability to receive income when you are trying to get your kids back. You can’t get your child back because you don’t have a job and you can’t get a job because of this report — it makes the issue cyclical.
Vega: In short, the same families and communities who are investigated and surveilled by ACS are the same families harmed by the SCR after their cases are closed. We are already in low-income communities with fewer career opportunities available to us. When the SCR withholds employment opportunities, it hurts our communities’ futures. It feels like they want the Black and brown community to stay poor.
Know Your Rights Presentations and Flyers
Manhattan Legal Services and Rise are providing presentations for parents and parent advocates to raise awareness and share information so they can advocate for themselves and support other parents in connecting to legal support, understanding the SCR letters, requesting records, sealing and amending their cases and preparing for hearings.
We will be offering a Facebook event on December 16 at 1:00 pm that parents, parent advocates and community members can join to learn about the SCR.
The information in the presentations can help people to clear their records so they can get meaningful work. MLS also developed flyers in English, Spanish and Chinese that provide information about how to challenge reports.
If you live in a state other than New York, see Child Welfare Information Gateway’s resource with state-by-state information on Review and Expunction of Central Registries and Reporting Records.