Child Welfare Reform Advocates Achieve Historic Policy Victories in New York

child new york historic reform cuomo welfare
Advocates for parents lobby for child welfare reforms in the New York state capitol building in May. Credit: Brooklyn Defender Services

Amid tired lawmakers reportedly flinging rubber bands back and forth, New York’s Senate and Assembly passed a major two-pronged reform to the child welfare system before the end of a frenzied 2019 legislative session last week.

The State Central Register Reform Bill championed by State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D) and Assemblymember Ellen Jaffee (D) significantly shortens the length of time that a parent’s name will be visible on the state’s database of those accused of child neglect. Under current law, if a child protective caseworker finds such an accusation credible, the parent’s name stays on the register for up to 10 years after their youngest child turns 28 — regardless of the severity of the allegations, any efforts the parent takes to rehabilitate, or whether a judge ultimately rejects the allegations against the parent.

Roughly 50,000 names are added to the Office of Children and Family Services-run register each year, often before a trial. Until the parent’s record is sealed or removed, they risk losing job opportunities with employers who can access the register.

Montgomery’s reform law requires parents’ records to be sealed after only eight years for neglect cases, or after their family court case resolves favorably. The bill also makes it easier for parents to appeal to have their records sealed, and eliminates timelines for doing so. Employers in certain child care professions will have access to maltreatment records for up to 12 years.

The bill passed with veto-proof levels of support in both houses, including from some Republican members. Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to sign it into law or comment publicly on the issues it addresses. Brooklyn Defender Services and other legal aid groups for parents and children in New York City that advocated most strongly for the bill met limited opposition.

“The standards to get on the State Central Register (SCR) are extremely loose and subjective, yet can create a barrier of employment for parents for up to 28 years even after cases are dismissed in court,” said Montgomery, who represents Brooklyn, in a statement. “This creates a cycle where parents are charged with neglect essentially because the family is in poverty, yet their ability to earn an income is crippled. With this legislation, we are starting to talk seriously about how we can provide some level of support to families in crisis and actually respond to their needs as opposed to punishing them for being poor.”

The changes to the register won’t apply to parents accused of physical or sexual child abuse. But since more than 70 percent of all substantiated child maltreatment claims fall under the category of “neglect,” and disproportionately involve people of color, many of them from low-income communities, the bill’s passage represents a major victory for racial and economic justice in the eyes of supporters.

“For too long, the State Central Register, which is intended to help children, has instead unnecessarily hurt children and their families, particularly poor families of color,” said Chris Gottlieb, co-director of the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic, in a statement“This SCR reform is a critical improvement in our child welfare system – it will make investigations more fair and ensure that parents’ access to employment opportunity is not hampered by inaccurate and irrelevant records in the SCR.”

It was the first year Democrats controlled all three branches of the New York government this decade. The register bill passed on the last days of a session that saw a slate of progressive priorities sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo. From new protections for rental tenants, to a major climate change bill, longtime capitol reporters are calling the volume of progressive reforms unprecedented. Child welfare reformers — especially advocates for parents rights — saw several other victories that could dramatically reshape the state system, home to one of the largest foster care populations in the country.

“Parents tipping the scales towards justice!!!” tweeted Joyce McMilllan, a parent’s rights activist who helped lead the legislative push, after two of her coalition’s priorities sailed through the legislature.

Tucked in Montgomery’s SCR bill was a subtle but potentially monumental change to how child welfare investigations themselves are conducted. The bill raised the standard of evidence needed for child protective workers to escalate an investigation, or “indicate” a case in industry parlance.

New York State currently requires caseworkers to find “some” credible evidence of child abuse or neglect to indicate a case, a lower standard compared to other states. If Cuomo signs the new bill, his state will require that a “preponderance of evidence” — that most of the evidence caseworkers find — suggests a child was mistreated in order for a case to receive indication. While child protection caseworkers generally have wide discretion in their investigations, the proposal could encourage a culture change within the state’s county-run child welfare agencies.

“The legislative wins, especially those that mitigate social injustice and the welfare of children, are historic. No question about it,” said Jeremy Kohomban, President and CEO of The Children’s Village, a large foster care agency based in the New York City suburbs. He added that if the Governor signs the bills, “the challenge will be translating these laws into pragmatic regulation. We must get the regulatory language on this right and do our best to make implementation less burdensome than it often is.”

Earlier this year, the commissioner of the largest child welfare agency in the state, David Hansell of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, appeared to endorse the indication standard change.

“If the legislature decides it wants to re-examine that law this year, we welcome that,” said Hansell to New York Nonprofit Media, responding to a question about the register reform proposal. “It’s important to look at all the aspects of it, including the legal standard for indicating cases, the due process protections that parents and other adults have in the system, and the length of time that prior abuse or neglect reports remain a flag from an employment perspective.”

Parent advocates rejoiced as the bill was approved late last Thursday evening.

“I’m numb – I can’t explain the feeling,” wrote McMillan to The Chronicle of Social Change of the SCR bill, which was prioritized by the Parent Legislative Action Network (PLAN) she helped convene last year with a broad coalition of affected families, and advocates for children and parents.

“We’re not just winning more, we’re winning for the first time ever. There hasn’t been a concerted, purposeful push that succeeded like this,” said Chris Gottlieb of New York University, who helped lead PLAN.

“Obviously, it has a lot to do with the legislature changing hands in November but it shows a level of organization, of coordination, that we haven’t seen before.”

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Michael Fitzgerald
About Michael Fitzgerald 59 Articles
Northeast Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Follow me on Twitter: @mchlftzgrld