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the Daytona Beach News Journal

Fingerprint checks required for social workers

 June 3, 2010

DAYTONA BEACH -- When it comes to volunteers and employees working with children and vulnerable populations, some local agencies don't know if the person has a criminal history in another state.

That will soon change with a new law signed by the governor last week.

Legislators passed stiffer requirements this past legislative session requiring federal fingerprint checks for people working with groups such as children, the elderly, developmentally disabled and foster children.

The enhanced screenings will be required in day care centers, nursing homes, hospice centers, transitional living facilities, summer day camps and other similar programs under contract with the state Department of Children & Families, the Department of Elderly Affairs, Department of Juvenile Justice and the Agency for Health Care Administration.

Currently, some agencies only conduct local or statewide employment and criminal history checks, but not federal checks through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Some changes will begin in July and August with new employees and volunteers while existing staff would be checked when they are rescreened, which is generally every five years, officials said.

Calvin Martin, local director of the Guardian Ad Litem program, which represents foster children in court, said the law is "extremely important" and will allow them to get more thorough information. The program for the 7th Judicial Circuit has about 280 volunteers in four counties, the majority in Volusia County.

Currently, Martin said Guardian Ad Litem runs statewide and local checks, but not fingerprint checks. The agency also calls out-of-state counties where volunteers are from to check criminal history, but Martin said in those cases "we are relying on information the volunteer provides us" such as where they lived previously.

The new law, he said, "will remove the barriers once in place for us in obtaining federal background information."

Statewide, the Guardian program expects 2,400 screens next year. The Agency for Health Care Administration expects about 86,000 additional screenings a year.

Federal fingerprint checks can cost about $30 to $54 depending on if the screening is done electronically or a hard copy is submitted, according to legislative reports.

Fingerprints will eventually need to be submitted electronically by July 1, 2012, or sooner depending on the state agency involved.

The law also will prohibit any person from starting work until the screening has been completed, which is not the case now. The law also adds other serious crimes such as Medicaid fraud, forgery and obtaining a credit card through fraudulent means to a list that disqualifies someone from working with vulnerable populations.

While exemptions may be granted by the agency head, no exemption will be allowed until three years after a person has completed sentencing requirements for the felony. An exemption is not allowed for a person designated as a sexual offender or predator.

The law still allows some volunteers not to be screened, including those who assist an agency for less than 10 hours a month and are supervised, according to state officials. But that is stronger than the existing laws, which set guidelines of less than 40 hours a month.

Stiffer requirements will also be in place for foster parents. State officials will be able to conduct a random drug test for foster parents if there is a reasonable suspicion of drugs.

"It's a safety issue to protect children," said Reggie Williams, local administrator for DCF.

Bill sponsors said the bill was sparked by a report by the South Florida Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale showing thousands of incidents around the state of children in day care facilities and seniors in assisted living facilities being supervised by people with inappropriate backgrounds, including convicted felons and pedophiles from other states.

Jim King, executive director of The Arc of Volusia, which provides services to people with developmental disabilities, said it's important "we protect the people we serve," but he also is concerned about the cost. He said depending on the cost on fingerprinting volunteers, the agency may have to reconsider how many volunteers they use. They had 50 this past year.

"I think it's important, but we also have to negotiate our expenses," King said.