By Peter Franceschina, Sally Kestin and John Maines
(Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel
More than 8,700 people initially barred from being caregivers due to criminal records have been granted special permission by the state to work with children, the elderly and the infirm, a recent investigation found.
About 1,800 -- or one in five -- were arrested again, some within days of the determination that they were of "good moral character" and could be trusted to care for the state's most vulnerable residents.
Felons have been allowed to work in day care centers, assisted living facilities and nursing homes through an exemption system created by Florida legislators in 1985.
The system was meant to give those with a long-ago minor offense a second chance, but convicts with multiple prison stints and career criminals with records spanning decades sail through with little resistance -- 82 percent get an exemption.
The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel's review is the first statewide analysis of a system that repeatedly fails to detect those who are likely to commit more crimes and overwhelmingly allows felons to work in positions of trust instead of assessing the threat they may pose on the job.
To obtain a caregiver exemption, applicants need only show they are rehabilitated -- by expressing remorse, promising to be good and providing reference letters.
Little independent background investigation is done, and serious crimes on applicants' records are missed.
"There are several things we need to look into -- including why there are so many exemptions," said State Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. "And if you are going to grant exemptions, why shouldn't you have to tell the parents of the kids at the child care centers where these people are working? We'll call that the free-market approach."
The lawmaker also said the background screenings need to be done at both the statewide and national level before prospective employees of day care centers and nursing homes start their jobs.
"Think of all the licenses that you can't get if you're a convicted felon, and yet you're creating an avenue for felons to take care of our most vulnerable citizens -- seniors and children," Randolph said. "It's scary."
The public has no way of knowing which caregivers have received exemptions, and the agencies do not track them to ensure they stay out of trouble.
The Sun Sentinel found that 21 percent ended up in jail again after getting an exemption, many for felony offenses including murder, sexual assault and child cruelty.
One St. Petersburg man is serving a life sentence for molesting children after receiving an exemption to counsel adolescents and adults.
"I'm not saying people don't deserve a second chance, but not in this field," said Dan Reiter, an advocate for seniors with Broward County's Long-Term Care Ombudsman program.
One Central Florida woman won an exemption to work in a nursing home, and then stole from dozens of patients.
Lucia Rivera, then 44, pleaded guilty in 1999 to aggravated assault and other charges for beating the girlfriend of her estranged husband and encouraging an accomplice to slice the woman's face with a knife, records show. In 2005, she applied for an exemption from the Agency for Health Care Administration.
"No reason to believe she would be unsuitable for the environment of a nursing home," one AHCA reviewer wrote.
Last year, while working as the business manager at Avante in St. Cloud, Rivera was charged with stealing more than $36,000 from dozens of patient accounts.
"Most of those people were bedridden, comatose," said Kathy Foust, a guardian for several victims. "When you're in your 40s and you have a felony, you don't need to be working around these people. They're so vulnerable."
AHCA officials said they were unaware of Rivera's new arrest. Rivera was fired and is serving five years' probation.
"Maybe the data that we're gathering is not adequate to make predictions about the future behavior of some of these individuals," admitted AHCA secretary Holly Benson.
Low denial rates
Under Florida law, it is more difficult for felons to tend bar than to work in a day care center or nursing home.
To get a liquor license, felons must wait 15 years. Even bartenders must wait five years after their crime before they can serve drinks.
Felons need only wait three years to get an exemption to work in child and adult care.
Those with the most serious kinds of offenses on their records have been given exemptions, including 45 murderers, 54 people who committed manslaughter and 12 registered sex offenders, the Sun Sentinel found. Two hundred more committed child abuse, child neglect or contributed to the delinquency of a minor.
Felons must show "sufficient evidence of rehabilitation." Reviewers are supposed to consider how long ago the crime occurred, whether any victims were harmed and the applicant's history.
In a review of dozens of state and local exemption files, the Sun Sentinel found many contained nothing more than a criminal history and a few character references. Some were missing past or pending charges and other relevant information readily available on the Internet.
Several people who got exemptions were arrested again -- and then granted exemptions a second time. A dozen were turned down by one state agency but approved by another.
Patricia Ann Williams' 11-year record included drug and assault convictions when she wrote to AHCA in 2001 to work in nursing:
"I ask you please to look past what was then and see me for who I am now and please grant me the exemption."
After a phone interview, Williams was approved. She has since returned to prison twice, for cocaine possession and battery, and a cash-checking scheme.
AHCA grants exemptions for jobs in health and elder care facilities and has approved 86 percent of the requests. Half the agency's exemptions since 2006 were awarded following only a "desk review" of the paperwork. AHCA officials said their approval rate is meaningless because each case is considered individually.
The state's Department of Children & Families, which awards exemptions for people to work in child care, drug or alcohol treatment and mental health counseling, has approved 80 percent of the requests it has received since 1985. Agency administrators were alarmed by that approval rate three years ago when they reviewed 156 exemption cases, some of which they found included serious crimes.
The agency was focused on processing requests swiftly, "rather than the safety needs of the children in day care," the administrators found.
Their review suggested granting exemptions "only to persons we would want to serve our own families."
"There's been a real effort in the department to try to get it right," DCF Secretary George Sheldon said in an interview. "Should we be looking at it with a much stricter eye? Definitely."
Randolph, the ranking Democrat on the state's Government Accountability Act Council, vows to ensure that happens. DCF is up for a previously scheduled review this year. Randolph said the licensing and exemption process would become part of lawmakers' inquiry.
Critical information missing
State and local officials are still granting exemptions for serious crimes, sometimes based on incomplete information.
Palm Beach DCF administrators gave an exemption last year to a sex offender, clearing him to work as a substance abuse counselor.
Richard R. Day, a Georgia psychologist, was seeing a patient in 1994 when he unbuttoned her blouse and put his mouth on her breast, according to court records. She went to the police. During her next visit, Day removed his pants and underwear, and police arrested him.
Day pleaded guilty to sexual assault and public indecency, and was put on four years of probation. As a result, Georgia officials placed restrictions on Day's psychology license, but he violated them and lost his license in 1997 for "devious, deceitful acts." He also was convicted that year of stalking his ex-wife.
After moving to Florida, Day received a mental health counselor's license from the state Department of Health, saying in his application that he had never been convicted of a crime or had a professional license revoked.
At his DCF exemption hearing in July 2008, Day gave his version of events.
"Mr. Day claims the incident was consensual and the victim acted inappropriately during her visit," one DCF official wrote. "Mr. Day explained in detail his side of the story and admitted he was very vulnerable during that time and shared the situation got out of hand."
The Sun Sentinel obtained police and court records from Georgia that portray a strikingly different scenario.
"I was scared and nervous, upset," the woman told police. "I thought he was going to rape me, I mean, really."
The detective who arrested Day, Donnie Canada, said in an interview he wouldn't trust Day to counsel women.
"I wouldn't want him anywhere around not just my daughter or relatives, but any female in a professional capacity," he said. "To me it's appalling they would not follow up and call the [prosecutor] or the investigator to find out what happened. That's a failure of the system."
Perry Borman, a DCF administrator, approved Day's exemption last September. It took more than eight months because of fingerprint delays and Day's efforts to obtain records.
Borman admitted it was a "sloppy" and "subpar" review because DCF didn't follow internal procedures, missed Day's aggravated stalking case and didn't have police reports in the sexual assault case.
"I think part of this was we felt bad that this was taking so long for Mr. Day that we may have overlooked things that we shouldn't have," he said.
DCF notified Day in September 2009 that he would have to re-apply for an exemption based on the information uncovered by the Sun Sentinel. In the meantime, he continues to work as a counselor in a West Palm Beach psychiatrist's office.
"We're looking at reforming the system," said DCF head Sheldon. "This whole exemption process needs to be tightened up."
Kate Santich of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.