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Brandenton Herald

Florida must improve caregiver screening Orlando Sentinel

EDITORIAL | Freed criminals preying on the vulnerable

Friday, Oct. 02, 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 (Fort Lauderdale) 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.

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 better procedures for hiring care workers when they convene next month for committee meetings.

The reality though, is most caregivers, no matter their backgrounds, can start work even before a background check begins, much less is 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 people 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 rearrested, 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 and 20 percent statewide, it’s long past time to correct a worthwhile but broken policy.

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 confined to those convicted of minor offenses and who can truly demonstrate genuine rehabilitation.

That would slam the door on applicants like Lucia Rivera, who sought an exemption in 2005 and later was hired at Avante nursing center in St. Cloud with the blessing of the Agency for Health Care Administration.

Her crime: aggravated assault and a laundry list of other charges connected with beating her estranged husband’s girlfriend and egging on an accomplice to slash her rival’s face. Last year, the former Avante business manager was charged with looting more than $36,000 from patient accounts.

“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,” said state Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. “It’s scary.”

It sure is.

Florida’s children, seniors and disabled citizens deserve better. So, too, does a growing part of the health-care industry that can’t afford the damaging reputation that will come if care continues to be negligently placed in the hands of criminals.