Tionna Collins stepped out of her new Southwest Philly home to make a call on a neighbor’s phone. When she returned, she found her house filled with smoke and her seven-year-old son playing with matches.
Collins, who had two younger children in the home, including a newborn, handled it the way her mother had when Collins was growing up, through corporal punishment.
Shortly after, the police arrived at her home, responding to a neighbor’s call.
“They said I was trynna hurt my son,” she said. “I wasn’t. My reaction was to discipline him, not harm him.”
The incident landed her in jail for five days and separated from her children for a month. She was ordered to take parenting and anger management classes. She no longer disciplines her children with corporal punishment.
But 10 years later, Collins, now 36, is still facing the consequences of that day. A former home health aide, she can’t get clients because she was placed on Pennsylvania’s ChildLine and Abuse Registry that a growing number of employers use to run background checks.
Collins isn’t alone. Black Pennsylvanians are not only more likely to be listed on the registry but are also more likely to work a job that requires a child-abuse clearance, according to a recent Penn and Temple Law schools report that calls for the abolition of the registry.
The report argues that there’s little evidence to prove that these types of registries keep children safe. Georgia abolished its own in 2020 and that did not result in a rise in child abuse cases. Other state requirements for criminal background checks serve as a child-abuse clearance, the report pointed out.
And more employers are opting to use the registry as a clearance even if workers wouldn’t have any contact with children — home health aides who work with the elderly, warehouse workers, remote hospital workers.
The result, researchers say, is that Black parents are locked out of jobs that they need to care for their children.
“I hate to say the word abolition because I think it freaks people out, but that’s where we’re arriving — ‘Why do we even need it in the first place?’” said Jennifer J. Lee, a Temple Law professor who supervised the report.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services (DHS) said that while it would work to address any bias in the system, it did not have the power to abolish the registry. “Any changes to the Child Protective Services Law itself would require changes in statute by the Pennsylvania General Assembly,” said spokesperson Brandon Cwalina. “DHS is statutorily required to make electronic reporting — like the registry — available for allegations of child abuse.”
‘People get lost in the process’
While Black Pennsylvanians make up 12% of the population, they make up nearly 23% of the people placed on the registry, researchers found. Black women represent the overwhelming majority of people who come to Community Legal Services, a legal aid organization in Philadelphia, to get off the registry — 78% of those clients are Black and 73% are women.
Parents are placed on the list when a county DHS opens an investigation of child abuse. If that DHS finds the claim to be founded, parents stay on the list for life, unless they are able to successfully navigate the appeals process.
“People get lost in the process,” said Jamie Gullen, a lawyer with Community Legal Services, who represents parents trying to get off the list.
They might have missed the notice saying they were placed on the list and needed to appeal in 90 days, or they didn’t understand how it can affect their jobs, or they got stuck in what Gullen called a very confusing appeal process. And even when they do appeal, it can take more than a year, during which parents remain on the list and could be fired or miss out on prospective jobs.
In the past three years, more than 90% of appeals were successful, according to the report.
Community Legal Services, along with Philadelphia law firm LeVan Stapleton Segal Cochran LLC and University of Pennsylvania law professor Seth Kreimer, is currently suing Pennsylvania DHS over the registry, alleging that it is unconstitutional because people do not get a formal hearing before they’re placed on it.
A similar lawsuit was filed of behalf of Pennsylvania teachers, and a Commonwealth Court judge ruled in favor of the teachers last July, saying they should get a hearing before being placed on the registry. The Community Legal Services suit would apply to all workers, not just teachers.
Collins didn’t know she was put on the list until she began working as a home health aide in 2021 and her agency told her, months later, that she didn’t pass her background check. She had already been caring for a client and had to explain the situation and ask the client if she could still keep working with her. After she stopped working with that client, she hasn’t been able to get any new ones — a major blow to her income.
Collins has been working with legal aid to get her name removed from the registry.
“It’s important for me to further my career financially because in this economy, today, it’s so hard with one income,” she said.
Now, she works as a security guard, but in the next few years, she’d like to study to become a nurse or a nursing assistant — jobs that would require a child-abuse clearance.
“I just wanna go back to helping people,” she said.