By Mike Klein
Thousands of daycare workers now employed statewide would be required to undergo federal fingerprint background checks under legislation introduced in the House. Not all at once, mind you, as there would be a phase-in period but eventually, there would be a more complete picture about the felony criminal histories of day care workers, including possible abuse histories.
“The safety and security of children are the primary concerns,” said Carolyn Salvador, executive director at the Georgia Child Care Association (GCCA) which is the state’s largest organization representing day care centers. GCCA has endorsed passage of HB 350. And, it has been at the table alongside state officials to address issues that impact its members.
During the past year GCCA worked with state officials to address questions about cost, access to testing resources especially in rural communities and the impact on day care centers when they need to fill vacancies. Overall, the association now feels like HB 350 is an idea that it can implement. “We feel confident we will be able to work through the details,” Salvador said.
Strengthening background checks to better safeguard 350,000 Georgia children who attend day care centers has been a priority for Bobby Cagle since he was appointed commissioner at the state Department of Early Care and Learning last year. DECAL oversees Bright from the Start and day care for children younger than kindergarten age enrollment.
Last month Cagle told a Georgia Children’s Advocacy Network conference, “Some of you may be thinking to yourself, we don’t have fingerprint-based background checks on all employees? That was my reaction. I’m a former probation officers and formerly did child protective services. I am well aware of the dangers to children in situations like this.”
State law requires Georgia-only fingerprint background checks only for some 6,000 director-level staffers. Commit the crime inside the state and the state will find out. Commit the crime beyond the state line and the state will not find out because it has no legal path to investigate. The state has an estimated 24,000 non-director-level day care staffers. Under HB 350, fingerprints would be screened through the FBI’s national database.
The legislation says new day care employees hired after January 1, 2014 would be required to undergo electronic or ink-based fingerprint background checks. All current employees would be screened no later than January 1, 2017. It is possible that normal employee attrition and turnover would actually speed the process. A recheck would be required every five years. Finally, employees could change jobs and keep their clearance to work for up to one year.
The legislation covers some 6,000 day care centers licensed by DECAL, but not thousands of other providers such as summer camps, sports clinics and other services available to children. Cagle said it could take between two-to-three years to review some 7,000 exempt facilities to determine first, whether they still exist and further, whether they should be licensed and then subject to HB 350 or any subsequent child protection legislation.
“If we took this on without having a good sense for what we are taking on we could dilute our effectiveness in existing programs,” Cagle said. “Do you cover things like karate schools where they are involved in single skills? Do we get involved in basketball or football camps?”
Child care advocates are optimistic about the bill. “Thousands of moms and dads go to work every day trusting that their kids are cared for by people with the highest character,” said Pat Willis, executive director at Voices for Georgia’s Children, which supports the legislation.
“Data consistently shows that children under the age of 5 have the highest rates of victimization and they are highly dependent on their caregivers,” said Melissa Carter, executive director at the Emory University Barton Law and Child Policy Center. “Requiring day care employees to have fingerprint-based background checks will create a coherent scheme of child protection.”
The bill stipulates day care centers could hire a short-term temporary employee to fill a vacancy. HB 350 takes no position on whether employers or the employee would be required to pay for the federal national database fingerprint check. A DECAL spokesman said the checks would be conducted through Georgia Bureau of Investigation resources, which is the same method used by teachers who are required by state law to undergo fingerprint checks.
Cagle said HB 350 would allow that daycare workers “who are found to have unsatisfactory background checks will have an opportunity for due process with the court system. They will have an appeal. It is a safeguard for people who feel there has been a mistake on their record, for a judge to take a look and ensure that the decision we made was a sound one.”
HB 350 is assigned to a House committee. No hearing date is scheduled.