In 2018, Nzinga Terrell-Brown was hired as a teacher's aide: her dream job. But a couple months later, she was fired—and didn't know why. She got another teacher's aide job but was abruptly fired again.
What was going on?
As Scott Pham details in a thorough and jaw-dropping expose for Buzzfeed News, Terrell-Brown was listed on a registry. Not the sex offender registry, which is public, but the child abuse and neglect registry, which can be accessed by employers and adoption agencies.
Terrell-Brown had been placed on New Jersey's registry almost 10 years earlier after she decided not to wake her fiance's kids, ages three and five, when she popped into the store to pick up a birthday cake for the five-year-old. The errand was short, the weather was mild, and the kids were fine. Nevertheless, someone called the cops, and Terrell-Brown was charged with "inadequate supervision." For this, she was placed on the registry.
There are millions of moms and dads like her, registered for crimes ranging all the way from sex trafficking to letting their kids frolic outside. Recently, I wrote about an Arizona mom facing registration for letting her seven-year-old play at a popular park while she picked up a Thanksgiving turkey during COVID-19.
That mom's registration as a child abuser is pending, because she got a lawyer to fight it. But this is rare. As Pham chronicles with damning stories from across the country, getting placed on the registry is quite easy; getting removed from it is obscenely difficult.
"People can be placed on these registries on the sole judgement of a caseworker and a supervisor from a child protective services agency, without a judge or similarly impartial authority weighing the evidence," writes Pham.
Got that? The decision maker and the caseworker can be co-workers.
What's more, according to Pham: "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 agencies have not seemed terribly concerned about alerting folks to their registered status. In Michigan, for instance, an audit published in 2018 found that the child protection agency could not verify it had notified 40 percent of the people it placed on the list.
The deadline for filing an appeal to get off the list is far stricter, however. Appeals must be filed within months or, in some states, weeks. In Vermont, parents have 14 days. And the right to an attorney is usually not guaranteed.
"In virtually every state, people who have been accused of neglect do not have the right to court-appointed counsel," writes Pham.
The impact is felt most heavily on the poor and on minorities, in part because so many government employees are "mandated reporters": They must report every scintilla of suspicion or risk losing their own jobs. The more government services you receive, the more mandated reporters you have weighing in on your parenting. Racism is also a factor; in Arizona, five times more black people are on the registry than white people. In New Jersey, Terrell-Brown's state, the ratio is 4:1.
It's worth asking whether the list makes anyone safer. After all, how much safer would you feel knowing that a lady who picked up a cake while her kids snoozed in the car 10 years ago is not allowed to teach your kids in a classroom?
At Let Grow, the nonprofit I run, we are working to fix things at the legislative level. As long as the states allow improper supervision as reason enough for registry, no parent is safe, because no parent is perfect. Who among us has never had their kids wander off? Who among us has never let their kids come home to an empty house? Who among us has never let their kids play outside unsupervised?
The "Reasonable Childhood Independence" law that just passed in Colorado—and earlier, in Utah, Texas, and Oklahoma—narrows the country's open-ended neglect laws and ensures that neglect is when you put your kids in serious, obvious danger, rather than any time you take your eyes off them.
Meanwhile, other changes are afoot. Thanks in large part to activist Joyce McMillan, founder of the Parent Legislative Action Network, New York recently reduced the amount of time parents remain on the registry. Previously, they didn't exit the registry until their youngest child turned 28. Their records are now expunged eight years after the fact, which is comparatively lenient.
In 2019, a New Jersey court ruled that the state should appoint attorneys for parents who are trying to get off the registry and can't afford them. Terrell-Brown, who had doggedly requested an appeal and—to her surprise—received one, suddenly realized that she qualified for a court-appointed attorney, too.
Just a few weeks later, before any hearing, New Jersey's Department of Children and Families changed Terrell-Brown's neglect charge to "unfounded." That means she can be a teacher's aide, after all.