It’s far too easy to be branded a child molester in Pennsylvania, lawsuit says

  • Zoë Read/WHY

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center, which houses the Commonwealth Court, is seen here on May 5, 2022.

Rachel McDevitt / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center, which houses the Commonwealth Court, is seen here on May 5, 2022.

Thousands of parents and caregivers in Pennsylvania are being unfairly labeled child molesters before they can defend themselves, according to a lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court by parents, caregivers and community organizations.

Those accused of child abuse can be put on the offender list before they have had a hearing, which is a violation of due process and the right to reputation under the Pennsylvania constitution, the lawsuit says .

The current system damages people’s reputations and impedes employment, particularly in child care and health care, according to the lawsuit. Women of color are disproportionately monitored and impacted, plaintiffs’ attorneys say.

“It doubles down on the racial bias that exists up front and simply excludes women of color from a whole range of employment opportunities in fields that, especially now, face severe labor shortages” , said Jamie Gullen, one of the lawyers. representing the plaintiffs. She is the Managing Lawyer of Community Legal Services’ Employment Unit and Youth Justice Project.

The lawsuit asks the court to require the state to notify those accused of child abuse and give them an opportunity to respond to the charges before their names are put on the registry. Several other states, including neighboring Delaware, offer these due process, attorneys say. They are also asking that their clients – a community organization and five individuals – be removed from the register until they receive due process.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Human Services said it could not comment on ongoing litigation.

Allegations against parents and caregivers often stem from situations such as missed doctor’s appointments, accidental injuries or medical conditions with unknown causes, lawyers say.

In 2021, the state received more than 788,000 requests to erase names from the registry. Of those who got a hearing, 90% were able to have their report quashed, said attorney Tad LeVan, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

“Our point is that if these hearings took place before someone’s name was on the list, rather than after, they wouldn’t have all the reputational and job damage that occurred in between- time,” he said.

Although those wrongfully accused of child abuse can appeal to have their names removed, the process can take up to two years. Many people on the list don’t even know their rights, the lawyers said. One of the petitioners has been on the registry for 15 years due to an accidental injury to her child. Until recently, she did not understand her rights to a hearing and is now struggling to find a job in the health sector.

“There are a number of specific types of industries that absolutely prohibit employers from hiring anyone whose name is on the registry,” LeVan said. “It’s sort of a double whammy for a lot of these people and ultimately hurts a lot of children because their parents can’t make a living and bring in the income to help them survive. .”

He adds that the lawsuit would not prevent the state from investigating abuse or protecting children.

“I certainly understand the need for children to be protected,” LeVan said. “We just think the state should do it in a constitutionally permitted way.”

2022.08.11 Petition for Rev… by WHYY News

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