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Editorial : Flawed system puts state’s most vulnerable at potential risk

Oct. 02, 2009

Some of Florida’s most vulnerable citizens have been placed at risk due to a flawed screening system that has allowed hundreds of felons to obtain work in day care centers, assisted living facilities and group homes.

“We’ve got to do a much better job than what we’re currently doing,” said George Sheldon, secretary of the state Department of Children and Families, which, along with Agency for Health Care Administration, is responsible for granting exemptions for convicted felons seeking work as caregivers.

Problems with the system were uncovered in an analysis by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. While employees in child care and adult care facilities are required to undergo background checks, there are inconsistencies in screening and in granting exemptions.

For example, the newspaper reported, employees at day cares and facilities for the disabled must undergo a nationwide criminal check. Caregivers for the elderly are screened only for crimes in Florida.

And, some caregivers are allowed to work until their background screening results are completed, which can take months.

The newspaper found 2,400 felons on the job before their criminal records turned up.

Exemptions that allow convicted felons to work in one of the facilities are supposed to be granted only with proof of rehabilitation. As a result of a system put in place two decades ago, the newspaper reported, 8,700 people with criminal records have been allowed to work as caregivers, including 45 murderers, 12 registered sex offenders and 200 people with histories of harming children.

And, about 1,800 of those exempted were arrested again for crimes.

Based on the Sun Sentinel investigation, state lawmakers have pledged to reform the exemption process.

But, it took a newspaper investigation to shed light on what both DCF and the Agency for Health Care Administration should have realized were flaws in the required background checks implemented in the 1980s? Surely child and adult care facilities are not so lacking in capable employees that they must hire felons.

And, putting felons in the care of children, the disabled and the elderly is especially disturbing. They need the greatest protection and we, as a state, deny them some of the protection they have a right to expect from us.

What seems clear is that the state needs not only a change in laws dealing with criminal background checks and the process of granting exemptions, but a change in attitude.