By Mike Klein
Georgia has tens of thousands of non-director-level day care staff that work in thousands of facilities. Stronger laws could improve what we know about most of them, including whether they were charged with sex abuse or felony crimes in other states. This would ensure a more complete picture about whether the youngest small fry in the state are in good hands or not.
“It’s the caretakers oftentimes that present the biggest danger to children,” says Bobby Cagle, commissioner at the Department of Early Care and Learning. As the General Assembly opens Monday, Cagle is pushing for legislation that would require FBI fingerprint-based criminal background checks that would ensure access to databases in all states. DECAL oversees Bright from the Start and day care for children younger than kindergarten enrollment age.
A May 2011 report published by Child Care Aware of America said 35 states require federal or state fingerprint background checks for day care center employees. Some states require both. Georgia requires a criminal history check limited to Georgia offenses but no fingerprint checks for non-director level staff. Also, the state’s child abuse and neglect registry was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court so that presents another obstacle to a successful screen of day care workers.
“Some of you may be thinking to yourself, we don’t have fingerprint-based background checks on all employees?” Cagle said when he addressed a Georgia Children’s Advocacy Network conference in Atlanta. “That was my reaction. I’m a former probation officer and formerly did child protective services. I am well aware of the dangers to children in situations like this.”
On a typical day about 350,000 Georgia children attend day care. That number is greater than the population of every city in the state except Atlanta. Cagle’s department licenses some 6,000 day care facilities. Facility directors are subject to fingerprint-based background checks but other employees, about 24,000 statewide, are not based on current state law.
“So we have about 24,000 people in the state of Georgia working with our youngest children who only have a local background check, meaning they walk into a police department or other vendor and give them their name and birth, usually not a Social Security number,” Cagle said. “They are provided with a copy of their Georgia background check. This is less secure than a fingerprint-based background check.”
The Department of Early Care and Learning receives more than 100 complaints per month related to possible inappropriate activity at a day care center. Complaints often originate with parents or others who ask that the state investigate a day care center. Complaints can pertain to facility safety, improper treatment of children, fiscal, employee behavior or any other issue.
“Child safety should be the first requirement for care,” said Pat Willis, Executive Director at the Atlanta-based Voices for Georgia’s Children. “Georgia requires FBI fingerprint checks for our public school professionals who teach children from age five to eighteen. Children from birth to four deserve the same protection.”
Two months ago state officials shut down a Macon day care center after they investigated an anonymous complaint. The state determined two staff members had Florida criminal records that included multiple felonies for crimes like fraud involving a child care center and robbery. None of this showed up on Georgia background checks because fingerprints were not required and the state investigation merely confirmed both workers had no criminal records in Georgia.
Cagle said the Department of Early Care and Learning has begun to draft legislation that would require all day care workers to undergo a fingerprint-based criminal background check. It is not clear who would pay for background checks, either the day care centers or the employees.
Teachers submit to fingerprint checks every five years as part of the certificate renewal process. The cost is about $50, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation website. Matt Cardoza at the state Department of Education said generally the school district picks up the costs.
Although it might seem like a no-brainer – keep kids safe by keeping possible degenerates away from them – efforts to update this section of Georgia law go back at least four years, including last year when Cagle tried to move a similar measure through the General Assembly.
Last year the membership-based Georgia Child Care Association did not support a possible bill. GCCA questions included cost, access to testing resources especially in rural communities and how quickly the testing system would be responsive to approve new hires. This year the organization is working alongside DECAL to craft possible legislation.
“We are very supportive of the concept,” said Georgia Child Care Association Executive Director Carolyn Salvador. “We’ve been brought in to brainstorm the best approach. We would like to make this work. It’s working out the practical solutions and the logistics underneath it that can be problematic, and the costs to an industry that is already stretched very thin.”
Also unclear is how potential adoption of mandatory fingerprint-based background checks would affect summer camps and similar organizations that are not full-time accredited day care centers but they employ adult supervisors and counselors who interact with very young children.