When Nzinga Terrell-Brown took a job as a teacher’s assistant in 2018, she thought it was the start of a new life. For years, Terrell-Brown, a college graduate with a degree in English, had worked in daycare centers and group homes, carrying the dream of one day becoming a teacher. Now, she hoped, she was on her way.
Less than three months later, she was fired.
It wasn’t because of anything she did on the job. Rather, she learned, it was because back in 2009, she left her young children sleeping in her car while she dashed into a supermarket to make a purchase. That momentary decision landed her on a list with the power to bar her from many teaching jobs.
Terrell-Brown is one of millions of parents and caretakers who have been placed on state-run child abuse registries across the country. A substantial number, like Terrell-Brown, have been cited not for abuse but for “neglect,” a vague term for which there is no fixed legal definition.
The registries were designed to protect children, but a BuzzFeed News investigation has found that the system often metes out a miscarriage of justice, doing little or nothing to protect children while inflicting lasting harm on adults — who may merely have had an imperfect parenting moment, who committed youthful transgressions they have long since outgrown, or in many cases, who did nothing wrong at all.
Being placed on a registry can cast a decadeslong shadow, ending careers, blocking the chance of getting hired for new jobs, and putting adoption out of reach. And in state after state, people of color — especially if they are living in poverty — are several times more likely to be placed on these registries, and to suffer their consequences.
People can be placed on these registries on the sole judgment of a caseworker and a supervisor from a child protective services agency, without a judge or similarly impartial authority weighing the evidence. What’s more, each state’s program operates with its own idiosyncrasies and policies, which may be sharply divergent from those of a state just next door.
In numerous cases reviewed by BuzzFeed News, people went for years without even knowing they had been listed — until they were turned down for an adoption or a job.
The consequences fall disproportionately on people of color. A BuzzFeed News analysis found that in New Jersey, a Black person such as Terrell-Brown is nearly four times more likely than a white one to be added to the registry. The analysis, which appears to be the first multistate data analysis of registry programs, also showed high rates of disparity in California, Arizona, and elsewhere.
As recent national initiatives have been launched to repair racial inequities in the criminal justice system, the registries, which operate in a quasi-judicial, social services realm, have received far less attention.
Despite the damage these registries often inflict on adults, experts believe that there is no evidence registries actually fulfill their intended purpose: to protect children from future harm. One reason, researchers and attorneys told BuzzFeed News, is that the lists include large numbers of people who don't deserve to be on them, making them essentially useless tools.
“I agree that parents should want good high-quality information about the people that are caring for their children,” said Kathleen Creamer, a managing attorney for Community Legal Services in Pennsylvania. But, she said, “a registry cannot provide high-quality information, because who goes on a registry is decided so haphazardly.”
Jerry Milner, former president Donald Trump’s associate commissioner of the US Children’s Bureau, a federal agency responsible for improving the foster care, child welfare, and adoption systems, agrees. “We can all rally around this desire to protect children from harm,” he said. “Oftentimes, we use that mentality to condemn parents who don’t need to be condemned, or to disregard parents or punish parents.”
“Sometimes,” he said, “the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach is what gets us in trouble.”
(None of the states examined by BuzzFeed News disputed the results of its analysis. Some provided additional context in statements that can be read here.)
The breadth and impact of the registries have been largely uncharted. There is no definitive list of all the people who appear on them, or what portion poses any actual threat to children. However, a BuzzFeed News analysis of federal data shows that state agencies have issued a finding of child abuse or neglect for at least 3 million people since 2008. In the majority of states, that finding is sufficient to get someone automatically added to the registry.
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, a federal law enacted in 1974, mandates states keep data on child abuse and neglect, so they can track cases and perpetrators. States have gone further, using the databases as case management systems and employment screening tools.
Most states make it hard to appeal inclusion in these registries — if the person in question is even aware that they have been placed on one. Despite these formidable bureaucratic challenges, each year, thousands of people file appeals. When they do, they usually win. The BuzzFeed News analysis shows that nearly two-thirds of all people appealing the state’s findings were successful in Pennsylvania and New Jersey across 10 years of data. In recent years, the rates were much higher — as high as 74% in New Jersey in 2019.
The people who choose to contest their placement on the list are presumably not a representative sample, since those who did commit serious offenses might be less likely to appeal. But the number of successful challenges suggests that thousands more people could have prevailed if they too had the wherewithal to pursue the often daunting appeals process.
The fact that most appeals succeed raises profound questions about the system itself — and has for decades. More than a quarter century ago, a US appeals court considered a civil rights case, Valmonte v. Bane, brought by a parent placed on an abuse list by New York’s child protection agency. Data presented in the case showed that parents succeeded in 75% of their appeals challenges, causing the judge to liken the agency to a car dealer whose vehicles break down three-quarters of the time.
“If 75% of those challenging their inclusion on the list are successful,” Judge Frank Altimari wrote in his opinion, “we cannot help but be skeptical of the fairness of the original determination.”
Altimari sided with the parent, but despite the ruling, the system remains in place, affecting millions of people every year.
Terrell-Brown’s problem started on a bright afternoon in February 2009, when she was driving to pick up a cake with her new husband’s three-year old daughter and five-year old son. The boy had a birthday coming up and, eager to make a good impression on her new family, she wanted to throw him a surprise party. When she pulled into the supermarket in the suburbs of Camden, New Jersey, she told BuzzFeed News, the children were fast asleep in the backseat.
She considered what to do. The weather was warm for February, about 60 degrees in the sun. She would only be gone for a few minutes, she reasoned, so she had what she now describes as a “very immature, dumb idea: to just leave them in the car.”
Fifteen minutes later, she said, she was back at her car. But by then, so were two police vehicles. She was terrified the kids were hurt, until she saw that the children were in fact still asleep, unharmed.
“And then it kind of clicked,” she said. “It was about me and the fact that they’re in the car.”
The officers didn’t arrest Terrell-Brown or charge her with anything, but later that evening, two employees from the New Jersey Department of Children and Families visited her home.
Whether acting on a tip from the police or from named or anonymous third parties, a caseworker’s first task is to determine whether there is an immediate threat to a child’s safety. If there is, the child may be removed and placed in foster care. If not, a caseworker is supposed to determine whether some kind of child abuse or neglect has occurred.
“This thing is like a leech on me. I’m not able to move.”
The standards vary from state to state. In New Jersey, a caseworker looks for a “preponderance of the evidence” that abuse or neglect occurred. That’s a far lower threshold than would be necessary for criminal conviction, where the standard is evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In other states, such as Arizona, the threshold is lower still: “probable cause,” among the lowest legal standards. The people making these judgments are not always required to have any specialized academic background, though state agencies typically provide some training.
Alicia Homrich, a former child protective caseworker in Michigan, said that having to make those assessments, while juggling an enormous caseload and thinking about the needs of the parents and children she saw, put caseworkers in an impossible situation. “You don’t have time to think, you don’t have time to breathe. You are constantly on adrenaline,” she said, later adding, “There’s no possible way to do it all and make the best decisions for these kids.”
Terrell-Brown said the caseworkers who visited her interviewed her children and inspected her home. On March 23, 2009, she was sent a letter that read, in part, “The Division’s investigation determined that neglect was substantiated for inadequate supervision.” It continued: “You have been identified as a person responsible for the neglect.” She was being added to the child abuse registry.
It took nearly a decade for the reverberations to hit her. She had been working as a teacher’s aide for over a month without incident when the paperwork she filled out came back from the child protective services agency. That’s when her employers discovered that her name was on the registry. They let her go immediately.
It happened again soon after when she was hired for another teacher’s aide position.
“I saw that this thing is real,” she said recently. “This thing is like a leech on me. I’m not able to move.”
She decided to put up a fight, but under New Jersey registry rules, the window to appeal had closed 20 days after she was cited. Terrell-Brown was nine years too late.
Terrell-Brown’s experience reflects a system that denies people many of the legal protections that Americans would otherwise consider routine. Parents can wind up on a list without being charged with a crime, appearing before a judge, or being provided with legal counsel.
Each state manages its own registry and sets its own rules. Some states add people with only certain allegations to the registry. California, for example, excludes less serious cases of neglect. Other registries run the gamut, including everything from sex trafficking to “improper supervision.”
In Oregon, people who are notified that they were added to the registry have 30 days to appeal. In Michigan, it’s six months. In Vermont, just 14 days. But for many people, that window is irrelevant, because they never receive any notification at all.
Billi Jo Seals, a 47-year-old from a small town in Arizona, is among them. She found out she had been placed on the state registry 19 years after the fact, when her application to adopt a child was rejected.
She called the Arizona Department of Child Services to learn more. According to the written appeal her attorney later sent the state, the department told her the problem dated back to when her daughter was less than two years old and Seals was navigating an abusive marriage.
The appeal said that the department claimed she had called the child abuse hotline and demanded they remove her husband’s adolescent son, whose existence she had only recently become aware of when the state temporarily placed him in her home. Seals denied calling the hotline — and said she wouldn’t have done something so likely to provoke her husband. Instead, she fled the marriage, taking her infant daughter but leaving the boy with his father. About two months later, according to the appeal, the department added her to the child abuse registry for neglect.
Several other parents told BuzzFeed News that they too had never received notice. A 2014 audit report in Michigan revealed that in 43% of cases reviewed in a sample of the registry, the state’s child protection agency could not verify that notification letters were even sent to, let alone received by, people who had been listed.
Even when parents are notified in time and manage to request an appeal, the process can be daunting. States have extensive resources and a relatively low burden of proof. And in virtually every state, people who have been accused of neglect do not have the right to court-appointed counsel.
The cases are usually heard by administrative law judges who may be employed by the same department or division as the people who compile the registries. In California, the relationship is even closer: Cases are heard by a child protective services employee, meaning the person on the list is judged by a colleague of the caseworker who made the decision to put them there. In Oregon, there’s no in-person hearing process at all. Parents are told to simply write a letter explaining their case.
In Arizona, the agency can overrule a judge's decision without attending the hearing — or even reviewing a transcript.
Even if a judge or committee finds for the parents, agency directors may still reverse the decision. In fact, a court in Arizona decided that the agency’s director can overrule a decision without attending the hearing — or even reviewing a transcript. In 2015, a man named Joseph V. was placed on the list when he pulled his son out of a car, causing him to fall onto gravel and scrape his arm and hand. Joseph appealed, arguing that his son had simply slipped and that the man who reported him had a previous disagreement with him.
He won the appeal in front of an administrative judge, but it was overruled by the man who led the agency, Gregory McKay. So Joseph V. took his case to the state appeals court. That’s where he discovered that McKay had never read a transcript of the hearing. In a decision written by Judge Jennifer Perkins, the panel of judges ruled that the director had the legal right to overturn the decision based on the original case file alone — as if the administrative proceeding had never happened.
In Arizona, administrators and review committees offer little help for a parent seeking relief, said Markus Risinger, a family attorney in Arizona who followed the Joseph V. case closely and would later represent Billi Jo Seals in her own appeal. “It’s rare for them to change their minds or declare the caseworker incorrectly concluded their investigation, because they’re really all on the same team.”
In Washington state, Shrounda Selivanoff was added to the child abuse registry for neglect in 2007, at a time when she was suffering from addiction to alcohol and narcotics. After time and treatment, she was reunited with her children and went on to live an exemplary life, much of it in social work, working in the same child welfare system that had removed her children. In 2021, the child welfare nonprofit Casey Family Programs gave her a “Casey Excellence for Children Award.”
In 2017, when Selivanoff’s son was in his mid-20s, child protective services removed his newborn child. Selivanoff volunteered to serve as the baby’s caregiver to keep him from going into foster care. The Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families rejected her because her name was in the child abuse registry.
Selivanoff was better placed than most people to navigate the obstacles. As a result of her advocacy work in child welfare and affordable housing, she had numerous connections in state government and a solid understanding of how the bureaucracy functioned. “I was in the middle of the system,” she said. “I knew the key players. I knew who was making those decisions.”
She requested a waiver and reached out to her connections to help push her application along. After 10 months, it came through, opening the opportunity for eventual guardianship or permanent custody. But the waiver was a onetime exception: She remains on the registry to this day.
Billi Jo Seals, the woman who was placed on the registry for leaving her husband’s son behind when she and her daughter fled, was also one of the luckier parents. She was able to hire a lawyer, who quickly convinced the agency to drop the case. But she said the legal fees for that lawyer combined with those of the adoption attorney cost her more than $10,000, a financial hit she said she’s still recovering from.
Getting off of the registry allowed Seals to move forward with her life, but she said now she looks back on all the years she didn’t know she was on it and wonders how it might have affected her. As a police dispatcher, she once had a promising career in law enforcement and said she had participated in some operations with the DEA. Later, she said, she applied for an entry-level position at the CIA.
“I never got any response back. Now I wonder: Did that affect my potential career? Was that a factor?”
In New Jersey, Terrell-Brown tried to get her case heard, even though it was nine years behind the deadline for filing. She had neither clout nor money for a lawyer. But she did have determination.
Starting in November 2018, she called and emailed the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. She later sent letters to state legislators as well, desperate for any influence she could find. A woman at the local legal aid office offered her advice on how to represent herself.
She had never done anything like that and worried she might not be able to hold her own with a county prosecutor and an administrative law judge. Still, she pushed forward and wrote a formal application for appeal in November 2018. To her surprise, the agency granted her a hearing for April 2019. Then, the hearing was delayed for three more months.
“That was heartbreaking,” Terrell-Brown said. With the delay, she would be without full-time work for eight months.
There was nothing for her to do now but wait.
BuzzFeed News spoke with more than 30 parents who were on child abuse registries. They cited a number of reasons, both subtle and overt, that living in poverty and being a person of color increased the chances they would be added to those lists.
One reason, they say, is that child protective agencies view them through a white cultural lens. Natasha Felix, a 33-year-old tax preparer in Chicago, made headlines when she fought back over a neglect finding she received in 2013 for letting her children play outside while she watched from their apartment window. She told BuzzFeed News she felt stereotyped as someone who didn’t take care of her kids.
“I’m Puerto Rican. A statistic: A single mom on welfare, making the minimum,” she said. “It’s still not clear to me why they feel like they can charge me for something like that.”
But a further reason may be that people living in poverty and people of color have far more interactions with social service or law enforcement agencies, and as a result, may face scrutiny on a level that members of other demographic groups simply never experience.
BuzzFeed News filed public records requests for demographic information about child abuse registries to six states across the country: California, Arizona, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The states were chosen for their size and in order to represent a wide diversity of regions and local child welfare laws. Together, the six states represent 106 million people, nearly a third of the nation.
In every state BuzzFeed News analyzed, Black residents were far more likely than white residents to be investigated by child protective services and added to a child abuse registry — as much five times as likely, for example, in Arizona. (Pennsylvania did not provide sufficient demographic data for the comparison.)
But even statewide data can hide the most acute problems. Black residents of Washtenaw County, Michigan, where the city of Ann Arbor is located, were more than six times as likely as white residents to be added to the registry in 2019. Even in Wayne County, where Detroit is located, Black residents are 2.5 times as likely to be added as white residents. It’s easily Michigan’s most diverse county, with a Black population of 39%. Yet, Black residents make up 60% of people on the registry there. In response to questions, Bob Wheaton, a public information officer for Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services, wrote, “Like other human service agencies in other states, MDHHS has recognized disproportionality in nearly all stages of the child welfare system, including Central Registry.”
Experts disagree sharply over the reason for these disparities. Richard Barth, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland, told BuzzFeed News that while the data shows disturbing trends, it merely reflects the “structural inequalities in our society.” Alan Dettlaff, dean of the graduate college of social work at the University of Houston, says those structural inequalities do affect poor people of color, but “racism within the system exacerbates those inequalities.”
Black people are investigated by child protective services far out of proportion with their population. The data shows that once they are involved in the system, they receive child abuse determinations at about the same rates as white people. But in a 2011 study in Texas, Dettlaff showed that even then, if you control for other factors such as the income level of the family and investigators’ assessment of risk to the child, Black families were still 15% more likely to receive child abuse determinations than white families.
Researchers sometimes try to draw a line between disparities that come from the reporting of child abuse, and those that come from decision-making by child abuse investigators. But the distinction is messy and it’s sometimes unclear for parents when they are within the system and when they are not.
Teachers, doctors, and social workers are generally required by law to report child abuse when they see or suspect it. “If you just think about the reality of what our poor families are up against, they’re going to be getting benefits from a lot of social programs that most of us never have to come into contact with,” said Milner, the former associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau. “Every time they go in and tell their story, they are talking to a mandatory reporter.”
Many experts say all this contact with all these representatives of government agencies adds up to a web of surveillance that affects people who are poor far more often than people who are not. The child abuse registries then reflect those disparities and make them worse. And they pose a huge obstacle to working in childcare and home healthcare, arenas that for many people of color living in poverty offer the best prospect of employment.
If you take “moms who are disproportionately Black and brown and living in poverty” and block their access to a fast-growing employment field, “you are doubling down on the racism they experienced everywhere else in their lives,” said Kathleen Creamer, the attorney in Pennsylvania. “And you’re doubling down on the poverty that they’re going to experience.”
Although experts offer different explanations as to why people of color became so overrepresented on abuse and neglect registries, few disagree about the need for change.
In New York, Joyce McMillan, a mother who turned her successful battles with foster care into a career in activism, founded a group that helped to push through a slew of reforms in 2020.
Previously, all names stayed on the state’s registry until a parent’s youngest child was 28 years old. The new laws automatically expunge registry records after eight years for parents with neglect allegations. “My youngest child just recently turned 22," said McMillan. "Had this not went into effect, I would be on for another six years.”
The laws also raised the legal standard for the evidence required to put someone on the list. Until the recent changes, investigators needed only “some credible evidence” of abuse or neglect. Under the new law, the standard is now a “preponderance of evidence” — still far below the bar required for a conviction in criminal court, but commensurate with more than 20 other states.
Small changes can have significant impacts on the lives of parents and children. As a result of pressure from advocacy groups, Pennsylvania’s child welfare agency overhauled the form they send parents when adding them to the registry.
Janet Ginzberg, an advocate who threatened to sue the state over the issue, said the old form was “incomprehensible” and failed to tell parents basic information about the registry. The new version, which Ginzberg had a hand in writing, includes improved language, such as “you will probably be prevented from working in an organization serving children or in a public or private school.” It also suggests the recipient obtain a lawyer to appeal the finding.
In Arizona, by contrast, notification letters did not explain the consequences of the registry, saying only that the state “plans to enter the following finding in the confidential DCS Central Registry.”
Terrell-Brown was glad that she won the right to appeal but was frustrated she would have to wait so long for her case to be heard. She didn’t know it yet, but the long delay would end up being a bit of good fortune.
In June 2019, just days before her hearing, the New Jersey appeals court handed down a dramatic decision in another case involving a mother trying to expunge her name from the registry. In an opinion written by Judge Clarkson Fisher, the state appeals court ruled that if people filing registry appeals couldn’t afford an attorney, the court should appoint one for them — even in the lower administrative court where Terrell-Brown was headed.
Sylvia Thomas, the legal aid attorney who had advised her previously, called Terrell-Brown and told her to contact the district attorney. Thomas said that even just the threat of her getting an attorney might be all Terrell-Brown needed to make the department stand down.
“I’m sure they are all scrambling to figure out how to deal with cases where they have to argue against another attorney when that was never something they had to deal with prior,” she wrote Terrell-Brown in an email.
“I’m not a criminal anymore. That’s what it felt like,” she said. “Vindicated.”
Just two weeks later, the Department of Children and Families dropped the case and changed the child abuse determination from “substantiated” to “unfounded.” Terrell-Brown told BuzzFeed News she felt relief and redemption.
“I’m not a criminal anymore. That’s what it felt like,” she said. “Vindicated.”
New Jersey appears to be the only state in the US where people appealing their inclusion on the registry have a right to an attorney if they cannot afford one. Awareness of the rule is still growing, but it has the potential to make a crucial difference in the lives of parents across the state.
“Representation is always going to even the playing field,” Thomas said.
In 2020, Georgia quietly dissolved its registry altogether after introducing it only four years before. From the beginning, it was beset with troubles. In 2017, five teachers and administrators were put on the list for failing to intervene in an incident of inappropriate touching between students. That punishment was declared unconstitutional, but then that ruling was reversed by the state Supreme Court. There were other problems as well. Reports of abuse were climbing, but the number of substantiated investigations actually went down, perhaps, experts believe, because sympathetic caseworkers were purposely trying to spare parents from being added to the registry.
“No one was saying that this registry was solving their problems. And in fact, just the opposite: Everyone had a problem with the registry,” said Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University in Georgia. She said the registry faced “a mounting pressure that came from a number of factors, including the litigation that was coming up through the courts and also pressures on the budget at the time that COVID first hit.”
Many advocates welcomed these reforms. But the rising popularity of once-fringe ideas about law enforcement has given life to a more radical notion of child welfare reform: abolition. A growing number of advocates and scholars are now declaring themselves “child welfare abolitionists,” arguing that the inequities of the child protective system can only be solved by disbanding it.
In Texas, the graduate college of social work at the University of Houston recently aligned itself with the abolitionist movement and founded an organization called the UpEND Movement to advocate for dismantling the whole system. It turned a school that once offered education and training for future child protective services caseworkers into a place where students refer to child welfare as the “family policing system” and advocate structural change.
Dettlaff, the graduate school’s dean, started out as a caseworker for child protective services in Texas. He investigated allegations of abuse and decided when to put parents on the registry. He said he didn’t understand the racial ramifications of his work until much later when he became a researcher. Over the years, he said, the problem of race in child welfare had become more and more intractable to him.
“I’ve been having the same conversations about this for 20 years, and nothing ever changes. It’s just not something that can be reformed away,” he said. He says he now feels the only solution to racial inequities in the child abuse registry and other tools of the system is to abolish them entirely and put the resources toward efforts such as universal basic income, child allowances, and universal healthcare.
“It’s not like the money’s not there,” he said. “We’re giving it to foster parents.”
Jerry Milner, the head of the Children’s Bureau under the Trump administration from 2017 to 2021, said he came to a similar conclusion.
“I don’t want to waste any time just trying to get better at what I would say is doing the wrong things,” he said recently. He said that some in the field accept racial disparity as a kind of inevitability. “I just can’t really accept that.”
Since leaving the administration, he has started a new consultancy called Family Integrity & Justice Works, where he calls for the “replacement” of the child welfare system, which would include, among other things, a massive shifting of resources from directly funding foster care into preventing child abuse and neglect.
In 2020, Selivanoff, the mother from Washington, helped to push through major legislative changes to the state’s child welfare system. Among them was one designed to help people who have been placed on the state registry: a “parental improvement certificate” that attests that a parent “successfully addressed the circumstances that led to the finding” of abuse or neglect. It doesn’t wipe a parent’s record clean, but it gives them a chance at the jobs and opportunities they might previously have been denied.
“I’m not a reformist, I’m not an abolitionist. I’m just a person who cares about people and wants them to have the best chance in life,” Selivanoff told BuzzFeed News. She said what she truly wants is a system “that sees every person in a family as deserving and capable.” ●
Correction: Shrounda Selivanoff received a Casey Excellence for Children Award in the “Birth Mother” category. The name of the award was misstated in a previous version of this post.