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Sun Sentinel

Florida's caregiver screening process is flawed and needs to be revamped

THE ISSUE: Caregiver screening process flawed.

Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
September 30, 2009

It ranks among the worst fears for anyone who has to rely on a caregiver

Imagine an elderly aunt robbed in her nursing home by her attendant, or a toddler burned by a staff member at an early learning center — or worse.

A six-month investigation by the Sun Sentinel found incidents like these are all too common in Florida, thanks to a hodgepodge of inconsistent employment standards and a faulty screening system that allows individuals with criminal records — including for violent crimes like rape and murder — to care for some of the state's most vulnerable residents. Most people want to think their loved ones are safe in their local assisted living facility, day care center or nursing home. They could be, if state lawmakers begin crafting more fool-proof procedures for hiring care workers when they convene next month for committee meetings.

The reality, though, is most caregivers can start work even before a background check begins, much less completed. The result is almost anyone — including people with suspect backgrounds — can find work, particularly for jobs caring for the disabled and elderly that don't require background checks for crimes that occurred outside of the state.

Worse, state law permits "second chance" exemptions, a once admirable policy meant to help ease persons with minor offenses back into the work force. Now, it serves as a turnstile to employment for career criminals. Roughly 8,700 individuals who were initially barred from becoming caregivers because of criminal records now hold exemptions, and one in five of those have been re-arrested, some within days of receiving their exemptions.

The exemption process also remains too applicant-driven. Independent investigations by the screening agencies are rare, and with rejection rates for the exemptions averaging between 2 percent in Broward County and 20 percent statewide, it's long past time to correct a worthwhile policy that has turned criminal, literally.

The technology is available to provide electronic background checks at state agencies across Florida before an individual is hired as a caregiver, and those checks should be consistent for all caregivers by covering offenses committed in other parts of the country. The "second chance" exemptions should be stringently restricted to persons convicted of minor offenses and who can truly demonstrate genuine rehabilitation.

Florida deserves better. So, too, does its health care industry, which can't afford the damaging reputation that will come if care continues to be placed in the hands of criminals.

BOTTOM LINE: Legislature must revamp Florida's screening process