Two years ago, I was successful in clearing my name with the New York State Central Register (SCR). The SCR is a database of those determined by a state child welfare agency, but not necessarily a court, to have committed child abuse or neglect of children. If you are on it, you are in the same company as pedophiles, rapists and murderers of children. My name had been in that database for 10 years.
It wasn’t on my radar to do this until my youngest son told me he wanted me to clear my name. What? I was not going to relive something that happened over ten years ago. The thought turned my stomach. Kicking up emotional dust from the past can make you sick.
It was bad enough that I walked around with what felt like a brand on my chest—invisible perhaps, but searing, and I felt as though people could see it. Ten years ago – in the middle of a bitter divorce – my husband called in a false allegation against me—I ended up with child welfare and criminal court cases. Even though both cases were dismissed, I felt like I couldn’t be around children. Someone would see the brand that labeled me a threat to every child I came in contact with. The brand would not disappear until my youngest child turned 28. I had to live with that. It was a major loss because I loved and worked well with children of all ages.
The brand burned when my daughter’s mentoring program asked me to volunteer. Too busy, I always said. It burned when I successfully kept my supervisor’s restless 5-year old grandson quiet for at least 5-10 minutes. Simple, I gave him a job; highlighters and paper to write his ABC’s. Although I was good with a restless 5-year old, my brand would always remind me that society saw me as an unfit parent.
It burned when I was briefly suspended from my job in admissions at a community college when they did a criminal background check—my fingerprints came up “dirty.” It didn’t matter that I had already submitted legal documentation showing that my cases were dismissed five years earlier. I had to get a lawyer to get my criminal record sealed. I learned that should have happened on its own. That burns me still. Why would I take myself through another process to clear my name? The dream of working with children was dead, never to be resurrected.
“That would be a no, son,” I said keeping busy in the kitchen hoping he would leave it alone. “We’ve moved on. I’m working doing something I enjoy. Both you and your brother are doing well in school. Your sister is about to graduate from college. The past is the past. Leave it alone.”
“Not good enough,” my 16-year old son said. Then he said something well beyond his years: “I don’t want the past to negatively impact your future. You are just getting back on the chessboard of life, I want you to keep going.”
He continued with the family trademark “power pause,” 30 seconds of silence, concluding, “That’s what I want more than anything else. You’d be so much farther financially, if that ‘thing’,” what we call it, “never happened…that’s what I want.”
I slowly turned around to face this young man. In my maternal matter of fact, laugh to keep from crying voice, I responded, “Ok, that’ll be your Birthday and Christmas Present for next year. “
Writing the letter to the State SCR was easy. Surely my case would be expunged. All I had to do was submit my Child Welfare Court Adjournment Contemplating Dismissal (ACD) and my Criminal Court Certificate of Disposition stating “the arrest and prosecution shall be deemed a nullity and the accused shall be restored, in contemplation of law, to the status occupied before the arrest and prosecution.”
Not so fast. I received a form letter. Appear for a conference. If I didn’t show, I would lose my right to a hearing. I could hire an attorney, blah, blah, blah in legalese. The ACS brand burned again.
Although I know how to read, it didn’t make sense. I’m not a lawyer and the language was confusing. I momentarily regressed to the “I’m right, they are wrong,” mindset. I had to prove my case.
Knowing what I know now, as a Parent Advocate, Family Court is not about being guilty or not guilty. It is about what needs to be done to move forward.
But the brand burned. It took me back to a time when I didn’t know what I know now. You have a right to exclude the chaos that comes in your home when a child protective service worker knocks on your door after 11pm on a school night. It starts with two investigators, then the police. It quickly escalates to a home invasion complete with more strangers entering your home, looking in your refrigerator, disrupting and waking up the entire household, separating and isolating your children from you, their authority figure.
Everyone is being interrogated in separate rooms in your home. No one is answering your questions. Terror, especially for children who have been taught not to speak to strangers. “Where is Mommy?” Strangers are in the home. “They want to look at our body. For what? Not without Mommy! Where is Mommy?” Being a fearfully confused good citizen, cooperating with authorities, I unwittingly signed the paper given, authorizing them to remove my children without a court order. They claimed, “all you have to do is come to a meeting the next day to discuss it.”
Now I am choking on emotional embers from the smoldering, invisible brand. Knowing what I know now, the reality that I gave my children to the child welfare system turns my stomach. Reading the false and malicious reports in detail associated with my case, the brand burrowed in my soul.
I had only been working as a parent advocate for a couple of years with the Center for Family Representation, a law firm that represents parents with open ACS cases. At the time, few people knew that I was still triggered by the system and lawyers. I persisted, connecting with one of my colleagues who helped me understand the process of amending and sealing my case. I wasn’t alone.
Instead of proving that I was right, I submitted documentation at the informal conference showing that my family engaged in services for at least a year after court order supervision. The children were thriving. They were involved in extracurricular activities and doing well in school. Where was the harm? The day of my daughter’s college graduation, I received a call that I did not have to attend a hearing—I had won.
In June 2017, my youngest son’s Christmas present arrived six months early. My name was removed from the list. At last, the burn has healed.
Even if you are not technically a criminal when your name is in a state register, you feel like it. Especially if your child welfare case began by you seeking help. If the foster care system is really going to become one that supports families, it needs to significantly change the registry process and the way it maintains information in the following ways:
· Extend or eliminate the time frames in which parents have to challenge their register findings. In New York, and perhaps other states, parents are told about an indicated finding and given only a three month window in which to challenge those findings. This is unfair and virtually guarantees most parents will not pursue any remedies that may be available to them. For many parents, the window given corresponds to a time of great crisis, upheaval and confusion, if they have been charged in family court, and especially if their children were removed. Understandably, they are most focused on the court case, and they could have multiple cases, as I did. By the time their case is resolved (which takes 2 years on average in New York), and they have the time, perspective and ability to turn to their state record, the closed window makes this much harder. The New York legislature just passed a bill that might extend this window, but it has not been signed into law yet and in every state, child welfare officials should explore giving parents a meaningful opportunity to challenge their record—which can’t happen for most parents if they are fighting in court at the same time.
· Automatically seal or amend ‘indicated’ findings when parents have their case dismissed on the merits in family court or are given a disposition with no finding of neglect (in New York, this latter disposition is called an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal-ACD). It is hard to get your case dismissed in family court because the standard of proof is so low. So when that happens, and a Court has found you did not neglect your children, you should not be saddled with a record with the State that continues to reflect that there was cause for concern about your parenting. The foster care system, with its connection to the state, should bear the responsibility of sealing or amending the state record as it has more resources than the typical parent.
· Decrease the amount of time a parent’s name remains on the registry: In New York, if you take no action to change your register record, that record remains until your youngest child is 28 years old. A recent bill in New York proposed narrowing this to 12 or 8 years, depending on the employer, but it is not yet law. And even this feels too long. Every year on the state register is a year you may be unable to secure employment in fields where a check of these state records is routine: healthcare, childcare, schools. It can even prevent you from becoming a foster parent or a visit host for children in foster care. As it is primarily poor parents of color who are most impacted by the child protective system, this burden falls disproportionately on families of color, who already face challenges related to structural and economic racism that limit their job opportunities. If foster care is to be rehabilitative, a burden that makes it that much more difficult to secure and maintain work is just punishment.
· Explore whether the current changes in the federal rules that govern how states spend child welfare dollars could be used to help parents amend or seal their state records in appropriate cases.
· Consider hiring parents who have been through the process to help other parents navigate the process of amending or sealing their records. When I finally took action to seal my record 10 years after the fact, I still found the process confusing. I needed help from lawyers. The letters parents receive about their remedies are written in legalese; it is overwhelming to imagine going to a hearing or otherwise advocating for yourself against a big bureaucracy—where the state DOES have a lawyer. Foster care systems could devote staff, especially system involved parents (“credible messengers”) to help other parents. It is not just confusing, it is also very emotional and the support of someone who has done it would be a real support.