Mike Klein Online

FBI Fingerprint Checks Could Make Day Care Safer for Kids

Mike Klein

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 again 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 check 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.

Bobby Cagle, Commissioner, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning

Bobby Cagle, Commissioner, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning

“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.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

January 11, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Juvenile Justice Reform Bill Vote Expected on Wednesday

Mike Klein

The Georgia House is expected to vote Wednesday on juvenile justice reform legislation that is every bit as significant as a similar adult criminal justice reform initiative, but it has received less public scrutiny.  The bill appears to have significant bipartisan support in the House and Senate.  One big proposal would mandate that county prosecutors be assigned to every juvenile court.

“We are making substantial changes in the way in which we handle problem children in Georgia,” House Judiciary Chair Rep. Wendell Willard said this past weekend during the 21st annual Georgia Bar Media & Judiciary conference in Atlanta.  “One of the things that I’ve made sure is in there is that before the state can have any child placed in its custody there is going to be what we call a risk assessment to find out what are the problems that the child is facing.”

Willard introduced HB 641 with Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.  Four public groups – Just Georgia, the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Voices for Georgia’s Children, and the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory University – have worked for several years to update the decades old state juvenile justice law.  There is a similar bill in the Senate.

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has prepared a position paper, “Five Essential Principles for Georgia’s Juvenile Justice System.”  The report will be published Tuesday, February 28.

Georgia currently has some 50,000 youths in detention or under supervision.  Willard told the state bar meeting that improved risk assessment tools would allow for better decisions about who should be incarcerated and who would benefit more from other treatment options.

Continuing his explanation about assessment, Willard said, “Are there problems emotionally?  Is he or she being physically abused or are they being sexually abused?  A lot of them are.  They get in trouble, sometimes it’s what is going on in their home life or other situations.  Let’s start looking at finding a way to deal with the problem other than just locking up.”

Rep. Wendell Willard, House Judiciary Chair

Stronger emphasis on alternative treatment methods instead of mandatory incarceration closely matches work being done in the adult system which is trying to address who scares us and should be behind bars or, who just needs our help because they are not a public safety threat.

The juvenile justice reform bill sponsored by House Judiciary chair Willard was submitted in the 2011 Legislature.  Two days of hearings were held late last summer when the legislators were in Atlanta for the redistricting session. At 245 pages, the bill is big on words and new ideas.

One proposed revision would require the District Attorney’s office in every county to handle all Juvenile Court prosecutions.   “Under current practices that is not what happens in a majority of jurisdictions,” said Douglas County District Attorney David McDade who is also President of the Georgia District Attorneys’ Association.  McDade also appeared at the weekend state Bar panel.

Some Georgia juvenile courts hire prosecutors, some use District Attorney or other court staff and, McDade said, some larger circuits have dedicated full-time prosecutors.  “In an ideal world the state would fund a statewide prosecution model for every circuit,” McDade said in an email.  “Unfortunately, the state currently provides no funding for Juvenile Court prosecution.”  HB 641 also does not provide specific state dollars to fund new prosecutors.

Alternative treatment models are a recurring them in recommendations made last November by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which considered only the adult system.  One of the Council findings, however, was there should be more focus on Georgia youth who run afoul of the law – some in serious ways and some not so seriously.  Willard said adult criminal justice reform legislation is “nearly ready.”

David McDade, President, Georgia District Attorneys' Association

An executive summary of the juvenile justice legislation written by Just Georgia discusses the dozens of proposed modifications and updates.  Just Georgia noted current state law contains no definition of abuse against a minor; the new law would define abuse “to include emotional abuse and prenatal abuse, in addition to physical abuse and sexual abuse and exploitation.”

In a world of acronyms, here’s another that would become more familiar lexicon: CHINS stands for children in need of services.  Disruptive actions by these children include status offenses that would not be crimes if committed by adults, such as skipping school, running away from home, violating curfew and smoking tobacco, and otherwise being unruly or disobedient.

Is bad behavior a criminal activity?  Under current law CHINS are dealt with as delinquents and might be subject to incarceration.  New proposals would incorporate a wide range of alternative treatment options for not just the child, but also the child’s family when there is one present.

Other proposed changes would reduce the maximum period of time before placement hearings for children under the age of seven.  Currently hearings must take place within twelve months after a child is placed into foster care; the proposal would reduce that to nine months.

Click here to read HB 641, the juvenile justice reform legislation.  Click here for Just Georgia.  Click here for Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.  Click here for Voices for Georgia’s Children.  Click here for the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at the Emory University School of Law.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

February 27, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment