*Linda’s children were too young to write their own names when they were entered as defendants into a New York state housing court computer. Both kids, now 3 and 7, are identified as legal parties in a pending eviction case against their mother.
Absurd as that may sound, it’s not a fluke. Minor children are sometimes named in eviction filings. When it happens, the damage is acute and difficult to repair even if it’s caught quickly. If a child’s name makes in onto official court records, especially if those records are public and online, the damage can be irreversible.
Almost a year ago, Linda’s landlord banged on her apartment door and quizzed her then-6-year-old, asking the child to spell both kids’ names. The landlord showed up unannounced while Linda was in the bathroom, and her older child opened the door before Linda could intervene.
“I was so upset and disturbed and angry,” she says. “This is an adult situation, why are the children involved? When I spoke with the landlord, he said his lawyer told him that to evict everyone from the premises, everyone’s name should be listed on the eviction notice.”
‘…it’s shocking to think an 8-month-old is going to be named, but it happens.’
Attorneys familiar with the issue say kids are sometimes named in evictions to intentionally harass or intimidate tenants, though usually the landlords (or their attorneys) misunderstand the laws and/or have little regard for the long-term consequences evictions inflict on children and families.
In New York, children are being named in eviction fillings more often recently as an unintended consequence of the state’s Housing Security and Tenant Protection Act of 2019. A provision in the law uses language that can be misinterpreted to mean only people who are explicitly named in an eviction petition can be named on the eviction warrant, says Roland Nimis, an attorney with Legal Services NY. As a result, some attorneys and landlords believe they must include minor occupants to have their warrant served.
“The idea was to protect third parties if they are family members who may have succession rights. We have succession rules that if you are a family member who’s not on the lease, if the contracted tenant leaves, the family member can remain,” Nimis says. “So the idea there was to sort of codify that idea that [landlords] have to make sure [they’re] giving everyone in the apartment notice who may have some rights.”
Nimis doesn’t know of data that shows how often kids are named on eviction cases. In the Bronx, it’s rare, Nimis says, “ . . . less than 1 percent of cases, for sure.”
“Incidentally, I did see that one of the plaintiffs in the landlord challenge to the moratorium named minors in her case,” Nimis wrote in an email. “The judge last month ordered it to be removed, but ironically didn’t do so himself and then New York state uploaded the file as an exhibit to the federal case, so now these poor kids’ names are in federal court (which also has a prohibition on minors’ names).”
A federal judge allowing minors’ names to remain on such a high-profile federal case suggests the practice of naming minors in eviction filings might be more common than understood. In a typical year there are an estimated 1 million evictions in America.
“[Naming children in eviction filings] may not be widespread with all the evictions that are happening, but if it’s 10,000 cases in a year or two years and 10 years from now those kids can’t move on with their lives, that’s tragic,” says Andrea Park, a housing and homelessness staff attorney at Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI). “And if we can stop that, that seems like low-hanging fruit.”
Park’s team at MLRI was able to include a provision in a recently passed state law expressly prohibiting minors from being named as defendants in a summary eviction process and allowing minors’ names to be removed from court records and electronic dockets.
“We weren’t really trying to aim at children; we were trying to get [eviction protections for] everybody, and we had to have an interesting strategic debate about going with what we could get, which was naming children, because that really resonated with lawmakers,” Park says. “They really latched on to that, understandably, because it’s shocking to think an 8-month-old is going to be named, but it happens.”
Children are often collateral damage in evictions, and by allowing their names to remain on eviction documentation, already-disadvantaged young adults who’ve been traumatized by at least one eviction have their rental histories scarred before they’re legally able to sign a lease themselves—and in Linda’s kids’ case, before they’re even able to write their own names.
The Scarlet E
Evictions damage and destabilize families. They create multiple immediate and long-term disturbances in finances, housing security, and overall physical and mental health. Displacement is especially hard on kids, who often miss school days, lag behind their peers academically, and leave behind friends and teachers when they’re forced to move.
Kids in low-income families are particularly at risk of eviction, and children born to Black and Brown mothers are between 5 and 8 percentage points more likely to be evicted by age 15 than children born to white mothers.
That damage becomes generational when it transfers to the kids who are named in those eviction filings, because once kids’ names are in the court computers, they’re fair game for companies that scrape court dockets for people to include on “tenant blacklists.” Appearing on a tenant blacklist makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a renter to find a landlord who will rent to them.
Most landlords look back seven years in rental records for any eviction filings against a tenant applicant, according to Isaac Sturgill, head of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s housing practice group. But landlords can search much further back in a rental applicant’s past for existing evictions or other damaging information.“Seven years is kind of an industry standard,” Sturgill says. “But . . . landlords could look back 10 or 15 years in some cases if they wanted.”
For children who turn 18 with a decade-old eviction on their record, even one that was dismissed, the “Scarlet E” on their rental history can blacklist them for years into adulthood, making it difficult to rent a home in their own name.
And there could be other issues at play. “We are sort of speculating about things like the credit implications and what that could mean down the road, but we don’t know how this could play out in their lives later, the fact that records are just online forever,” Park says.
Considering minor children cannot legally be a responsible party to any type of contract, removing their names in court documents, especially if they’re found right away, should be a simple process. It’s not.
The laws and processes vary by state, but parents and legal guardians who want to remove minors’ names from eviction records have a difficult fight ahead of them.
Removing names from existing records and preventing them from being inadvertently entered in the future is “especially acute” right now, says Isaac Fink, an attorney with Bronx Legal Services who is representing Linda. This is especially true in New York, where all housing court records are now available online.
In Linda’s case, for instance, Fink has been fighting to have her kids’ names removed from court records for the last 10 months—so far without success. This means Linda’s now-3-year-old child’s name has been available for public data collection for almost a year. That child could, in 2036, apply for an apartment for the first time as a legal adult and be automatically rejected when the property management company searches online and finds a 15-year-old eviction case.
“These reporting agencies just basically go to the court computers and look at every single case that was filed,” regardless of accuracy or outcome, he says. And even if a landlord isn’t using a blacklist, “it would be very easy for someone to just go to the court website itself and search a name, and our clients’ children’s names will come up.”
Sealing and Expunging Records
Simply having minors’ names dismissed from a case and removed from court records is rarely enough to remove them entirely from online records, creating an inherent disadvantage for first-time renters, according to Esme Caramello, faculty director at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.
“That’s where I see it a lot—with 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds,” Caramello says. “They’re being superfluously and harmfully named in cases that should [have been] about their parents only.”
To keep a minor’s future housing searches from being hampered by a past improper eviction, adult tenants (or, more likely, their attorneys) must have the existing eviction case sealed, which isn’t ever a straightforward process, when it’s possible at all.
[RELATED ARTICLE: Eviction Filings Hurt Tenants, Even If They Win]
For example, Eric Dunn, director of litigation at National Housing Law Project, says that in Washington state where he practices, the process to show cause to seal eviction records is “almost impossible.”
“You’ve got to show that the privacy or safety interests outweighs the public’s interest in access to the record,” he says. “And if it’s granted, the order must be narrowly tailored in both time and duration.”
Even sealing court records isn’t a foolproof solution: the record still exists and although the contents of sealed cases are removed from public view, they can be accessed with a court order. To have a court record’s existence wiped entirely from public view, it must be expunged, another complicated process with variable availability to tenants from state to state.
Some states—Minnesota, Nevada, and Oregon, for example—have recently enacted laws making sealing or expunging eviction records easier for tenants.
But in places like North Carolina, where’s there’s no expungement process for eviction records, once a minor’s name is in the public record with an eviction attached—even if the judgment is vacated or marked void—it’s hard to “un-ring that bell,” according to Isaac Sturgill, head of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s housing practice group.
“Once a defendant is listed on an eviction filing in North Carolina there’s really no way to erase the filing itself. The record of the person being filed on will remain,” he says.
Massachusetts is one of a handful of states that have passed tenant protections explicitly prohibiting landlords from naming minors on evictions, Caramello says, but still, “we continue to see the practice, even among experienced counsel.”
Fighting for Stronger Protections
None of the attorneys interviewed for this story knew of a comprehensive list of state laws that prohibit the naming of children on eviction filings, and no one was aware of any agencies tracking the issue. A few state legislatures, including in Connecticut and Florida, have had bills introduced proposing methods to make it easier to have kids’ names removed from eviction records and/or introducing prohibitions and punishments, such as fines, for listing them in eviction filings in the first place.
To address the problem in New York, at least one attorney tried to make the case that naming children on eviction notices is effectively harassment. The presiding judge denied the argument because of the state’s Housing Security and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, according to Nimis.
“We have a harassment law that prevents behaviors that are deemed to be aimed to convince people to leave unlawfully,” Nimis says. “This new law in 2019 says you’ve got to name everybody, so the judge said maybe that will require you name a minor because it could be an emancipated minor who’s 16, their parents have left, but they want to stay.”
The judge determined that because of that provision, categorizing inclusion of minors’ names as harassment would be an overbroad interpretation of the law. Both Nimis and Fink say they plan to further pursue the harassment argument.
‘They’re misrepresenting to the court that the children owe them money … So it’s not only a bad practice, it’s arguably an illegal practice.’
Sturgill is also pursuing legal remedies for minors named on eviction cases in North Carolina. He says the state’s consumer protection laws make it illegal to represent that someone owes you money when they don’t, and it’s also illegal to mischaracterize someone’s debt in a legal proceeding.
“If a landlord files a lawsuit and names minor children who are not parties on the lease in an eviction case for nonpayment of rent, they’re misrepresenting to the court that the children owe them money,” he says. “So it’s not only a bad practice, it’s arguably an illegal practice.”
It’s been nearly a year since Linda’s landlord filed eviction paperwork with the local court, and her children’s names are still in the court’s computers, available for scraping by tenant screening companies.
Linda—who’s in her late 20s and has lived for about two years with her family in the rental home that’s the subject of the eviction case—says the stress of looming displacement and homelessness, plus fighting to get her kids off the eviction filing, has made the last year difficult.
“I’ve had mental breakdowns, cried myself to sleep at night, and all these things are happening in the middle of the pandemic,” she says. “In the back of my head that problem is always there. The kids get panicky; they’re scared. I don’t think I should have to live in a way that if anyone comes to visit me my kids always cling at my feet.”
*Linda is not the tenant’s real name. Shelterforce agreed to conceal the tenant’s identity because her eviction case is pending.