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Faulty system lets felons be caregivers

FORT LAUDERDALE – Disturbing flaws in Florida’s background screening system have put children, seniors and the disabled in the care of convicted felons with records that include rape, child molestation and murder, an investigation by the Sun Sentinel newspaper has found.

Employees of day care centers, assisted living facilities and group homes are required to undergo a background check under state law but can begin work before their screening is complete, the paper is reporting this week.

At least 2,400 day care workers were already on the job before their records turned up, including a Tampa man with this note in his screening record: “EVIL DUDE-RAPE+KIDNAP+SEX ASLT,” a statewide database of screenings since 1985 shows.

Even when criminal offenses are discovered, people can still work with little more than a promise not to break the law again.

Through an exemption system created by lawmakers two decades ago, Florida has cleared more than 8,700 people with criminal records to be caregivers. They include 45 murderers, 12 registered sex offenders and 200 people with histories of harming children.

Exemptions are only supposed to be granted with proof of rehabilitation. But about 1,800 of the people approved – or one in five – went on to be arrested again, some within days of the state’s determination that they could be trusted to care for vulnerable residents.

“It’s totally unacceptable. Obviously, this has become a huge loophole that needs to be closed,” said Nan Rich, D-Weston, vice chairwoman of the Florida Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs committee.

A sex abuse scandal at a Miami day care in the mid ‘80s prompted the first of several state laws requiring background checks for caregivers and allowing for exemptions.

Florida now has a patchwork system with glaring inconsistencies.

Employees at day cares and facilities for the disabled undergo a nationwide criminal check. But caregivers for the elderly are checked only for offenses in Florida, with some exceptions.

Nursing home employees must pass a background check before they can work. But other caregivers can be on the job before the screening results come back, a process that can take months.

“All this time these people are working,” said Sandy Pillar, who tracks screenings at the state Department of Children and Families. “We’ve had people working in child care who were pedophiles.”

In West Palm Beach, an employee worked for two months at a YMCA skate park before a background check revealed he was facing child sex charges in California. Last October, a baby suffered severe burns at a Fort Lauderdale area day care while under the watch of a woman on felony probation who was working without a background check.

“We’ve got to do a much better job than what we’re currently doing,” said DCF Secretary George Sheldon. “We have a serious responsibility to protect kids.”

Under Florida law, it’s more difficult for felons to bartend than to work in a day care center or nursing home. They must wait five years before they can serve drinks, but need only wait three years to get an exemption to work in child and adult care.

Two state agencies, DCF and the Agency for Health Care Administration, approve exemptions for caregivers. Little independent background investigation is done, and serious crimes on applicants’ records are missed.