At some centers, felons watch the preschoolers

TAMPA — Dorothy Sampson-Monroe, convicted three times of felony cocaine possession, wanted to work in child care.

Four years ago, the state let her.

Right away, parents accused her of bruising an infant's brain. Her insurance company paid the medical bill, the parents' attorney said. This year, police said she hit four children at her Just For Kids day care center. But the cases were weak, and prosecutors dropped them.

Once again, Sampson-Monroe can legally care for children.

So can thousands of other Floridians with criminal pasts.

Since 1985, the Department of Children and Families has cleared 5,803 people to work with kids despite serious records. Their ranks include former cocaine users, prostitutes, spouse abusers, burglars and, in rare instances, kidnappers and killers.

The practice, currently under review at the state's highest levels, gives second chances to felons who profess to have turned their lives around.

"This is the Department of Children and Families," explained agency Secretary George Sheldon, "and I think we need to be consistent with the concept that people can be rehabilitated."

But the rehabilitation gets tested in the nap rooms and play rooms of some of the state's most vulnerable citizens.

And the state allows it without the knowledge of the people most vested in the decision: parents.

"You want to believe that people can change," said Janna Lindstrom of Valrico, who recently began researching child care options for her infant foster son. "But you never know."

Last year, 125,000 Floridians underwent mandatory DCF screenings to be foster parents, day care workers, drug counselors or other caregivers.

To be disqualified, applicants had to have been guilty of serious crimes — most commonly, felony drug offenses, felony theft or domestic violence, or of misdemeanors that speak to character, such as prostitution.

Background checks disqualified about 2,600.

Some successfully appealed, including 52 prospective child care and foster care workers from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties who persuaded DCF to overlook their convictions.

They came with cleaned-up lives, conviction-free for at least three years.

Shelly Larry, 34, got approved.

Her state arrest record shows she was convicted of felony cocaine possession.

"I would like a second chance at life to become a responsible, productive citizen," she wrote to DCF.

In her 2008 request for an exemption — the state's term for the waiver granted to felons who would otherwise be disqualified — she described herself as a devoted mother of four, active in her church.

Like most child care workers contacted by the St. Petersburg Times, she declined to speak publicly about her past.

Dana Pittman, 46, convicted of domestic violence in 1997, applied for clearance last year.

By then, he had a new wife, one with an in-home day care, state records show. Florida law requires screening of anyone who lives at a home-based day care.

"My life has taken a 360 degree shift to the right side of the law," Pittman wrote in his application.

He did not return messages left with his wife and at his church.

Kimberly Fisher, 36, from Tampa, had worked 10 years in a day care with the state's okay when a routine rescreening showed that she had pleaded no contest to a 1995 domestic violence charge. Adjudication was withheld.

Florida requires updated background checks every five years. It's unclear why initial screenings caused no problem.

"I would be devastated if I was not allowed to go back to work with all my children of the Fun Factory," she pleaded in a letter.

She is back at work at Palm River Preschool Center, formerly the Tampa Fun Factory. She didn't respond to phone messages or notes left at her day care by the Times.

Spring Page, 50, had been in and out of jail, including prison time for burglary and grand theft. At age 35, records show, she pleaded no contest to prostitution.

But for seven years, she has run a home-based day care without incident. At first, DCF limited her to running a day care in the Tampa Bay area. Last year, DCF lifted the limitation and also allowed her to be a foster parent.

Page initially agreed to an interview then changed her mind. She said she'd like to leave the past in the past.

"I prayed so hard for God to take this miserable life away from me," she wrote in her original application. "I had enough and knew I was much better than what I put myself through."

• • •

Willie Dan Clark, 49, has been out of prison for nearly a decade, cleaning floors late at night at a Walmart in Dade City. He leads his church's prison ministry and preaches the gospel of forgiveness.

Until he turned things around, Clark had been convicted three times on felony drug charges, state records show.

Last year, his record became an obstacle for his wife, Cynthia, 38. She wanted to watch children at their house in Pasco County.

Clark collected 25 letters of reference, including ones from his boss, several ministers and a high school coach.

DCF officials reviewed his work history and took note that he was willing to accept responsibility for his actions. They asked whether he had counseling. He had.

A month passed without word. Clark spent days at his mother's house while his wife took in kids.

On Dec. 10, 2008, the letter came, approving him.

The house exploded in hallelujahs.

"We thank God for the whole process," Cynthia said.

• • •

Lynn Marshall's story is known to many.

The wildly popular youth leader drew publicity in 2007 for his work in the Pioneer Camp at Boyd Hill Nature Park.

That's when state officials realized he had never been cleared. His past included convictions for DUI, retail theft and cocaine possession.

Letters poured in from parents, students and others supporting him.

DCF regional director Nick Cox, a former prosecutor, allowed Marshall to stay at the program but set special written conditions. He had to stay sober. He would be subject to random drug tests.

"They didn't make it easy," Marshall said, "but they made it possible."

In April, DCF got word the city of St. Petersburg had terminated Marshall out of concern he'd failed to maintain his sobriety.

Marshall acknowledges that he had been drinking and missed a meeting at work.

Cox sent him a letter terminating his right to run the program.

• • •

DCF found it more difficult to unseat Sampson-Monroe.

No one had set special conditions when she was cleared in 2005. She was a church-going woman with references, and a decade had passed since her last conviction.

"If I had the legal grounds to revoke the exemption, I would do so," said Cox, who took over as DCF's regional director after Sampson-Monroe was approved.

It doesn't matter that Sampson-Monroe, now 48, has been booked by police on child abuse charges twice since opening her business.

The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute. The timing of the infant's brain injury could not be firmly established. The other children did not show injuries consistent with having been hit.

When the case fizzled, so did the temporary court injunction DCF obtained to keep Sampson-Monroe from working in child care.

The county shut down her business in June, alleging she gave incorrect information on her license application.

But nothing stands in her way of getting a job elsewhere.

A Times reporter visited Sampson-Monroe at her home for this story. She declined to be interviewed.

It's unclear whether she now cares for children in any capacity.

"That's my passion, that's my heart," she said as she walked to her mailbox, not looking up.

• • •

Mary Dunbar, 82, who lives in a tidy east Tampa apartment surrounded by dolls and angel figurines, got her second chance long ago.

Thirty-two years ago, she shot her unfaithful ex-boyfriend dead. She pleaded guilty to manslaughter and a judge let her off with 15 years' probation.

When it ended, she thought she might want to be a foster mother.

She applied. The state said yes.

• • •

DCF doesn't always say yes.

Each year, the agency turns away thousands.

It twice turned away Rob Mallan.

Mallan, 39, of Tampa wanted to be a foster parent to his wife's two foster sons but had been sent to prison at age 21 on charges he helped kidnap a 10-year-old boy.

In DCF paperwork, Mallan characterized the incident as a "prank."

Mallan entered the ministry after his release. To some, he looked like the picture of reform.

When DCF turned him down, he appealed to an administrative law judge.

The judge overruled DCF.

• • •

Parent Lindstrom finds it shocking that felons get state approval to work with children.

"I had no idea," the 38-year-old legal assistant said.

While researching child care, she learned to inquire about staff members' educational qualifications and hand washing procedures. Did they talk to kids at eye level? Did the place seem cheerful, clean and safe?

No one mentioned felony records.

"They only screen people every five years?" she said with dismay as she flipped through files on her first-choice day care at Hillsborough County's child care licensing office.

For parents, checking up on child care workers can be expensive and time-consuming. Some day care centers have 10 or more workers. Comprehensive statewide arrest reports cost $24 apiece.

DCF files on felons cleared to work with kids are considered public records.

The agency typically redacts criminal information but accidentally released complete records last year to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The newspaper posted a searchable statewide database online this summer, as part of sweeping investigation called "Trust Betrayed." (Find a link to the database at links.tampabay.com.)

State government doesn't offer parents the same service.

That's disheartening to Lindstrom.

Her two older sons' schools notify parents even when teachers deliver subjects outside their field, she notes. If that sort of transparency is required, why not inform parents about child care workers?

• • •

As critics pay more attention to the criminal records of people who work with children, DCF has exerted tighter control over granting of exemptions.

In the bay area, 35 have been issued this year.

Agency Secretary Sheldon recently decided he would have the final say on whether to grant an exemption.

He thinks criminals shouldn't be eligible until five years after a prison sentence ends. Currently, the law says three years after their last offense. That means someone sentenced to five years could be eligible while still in prison.

Sen. Ronda Storms, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, argues for a longer time period.

"To me, any time you're inside the window of 10 years is too soon to demonstrate a change," the Valrico Republican said.

State lawmakers want to give DCF broader powers to revoke exemptions.

Also under scrutiny: Child care centers can put people to work before their background checks are completed, a process that can take a month or longer. That's not the case in public K-12 schools, where the checks must be completed first.

Sheldon said he's committed to upholding the idea that people can turn their lives around.

There's been little discussion of closing the door on people with criminal records.

"I think it was built on an appropriate philosophy," Sheldon said, "that if someone has made a mistake and has demonstrated that they have learned from that mistake and been rehabilitated, then they ought to be given an opportunity to work."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Tips for parents

Ask your day care operator if any employees have criminal records.

Get names and ages of day care workers. Check the records yourself. State criminal records, $24 each, can be ordered online from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Individual county jail records are typically free online (links.tampabay.com).

Check the statewide database created by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (see links.tampabay.com). The newspaper dedicated three reporters to a six-month investigation of background screening for people who work with children and vulnerable adults, as part of its series "Trust Betrayed."

Ask your day care whether employees are allowed to begin work before background screening has been completed. Is there anyone on staff now whose results haven't come back?

Read child care center inspection reports, available online (see links.tampabay.com). Hard copy files may contain more details, including a roster of employee names. Call your local licensing agent and ask to see the file. In Hillsborough (813) 272-6487, in Pinellas (727) 507-4857, in Pasco (813) 558-5500 and in Hernando (352) 330-2162.

Find out if your day care is "licensed" or simply "registered." Pinellas and Hillsborough counties require licensing. Pasco and Hernando counties allow "registered" programs. That means the day care isn't subject to random and regular inspections, although employees must still be screened and trained.

At some centers, felons watch the preschoolers 12/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 14, 2009 12:31pm]

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