The state's faulty system for screening caregivers has allowed convicted sex offenders and murderers to work with vulnerable Floridians.
That is one of the disturbing findings of an extensive six-month investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that reviewed background screenings since 1985. The newspaper found thousands of ex-felons have been employed to work in day care facilities, assisted living homes and with disabled adults, leaving little doubt that Florida needs to toughen background screening requirements and increase enforcement to ensure the vulnerable are not preyed upon. But it also should be careful to not make the process so severe that reformed criminals are shut out of finding work.
The Sun-Sentinel's series gave detailed accounts of harm from around the state, such as the cancer patient at an assisted living facility in Pompano Beach who watched a nurse with a theft record steal $165 from her handbag, and the Tampa man whose screening records read, "EVIL DUDE — RAPE+KIDNAP+SEX ASLT." And the newspaper detailed horrible stories of caregivers with criminal records who proved to be negligent in child care.
The problem is a combination of state rules that are inconsistent and poorly enforced, and managers at caregiving facilities who want low-wage employees no matter their background.
Florida has a crazy patchwork of regulations. Day care employees and workers with the disabled must be screened through a nationwide criminal check, though they are allowed to start work long before the check is completed, if it ever is. And people who care for the elderly are screened only for Florida offenses, but can't begin employment until they pass their background check.
Then, when a criminal past is unearthed, Florida's exemption system lets many through anyway. The state gave 8,700 people with criminal records exemptions to work with children, the elderly and disabled, including dozens of murderers, sex offenders and child abusers. In Broward County, 98 percent of those who applied received an exemption. And the newspaper found that about one in five caregivers who received an exemption was rearrested, some just shortly after being judged trustworthy.
Tighter rules that are more uniform are needed. In a state with as many transients as Florida has, national background checks should be required before anyone can begin working as a caregiver. The state should implement much higher fines for employers who ignore the law. And much more rigorous review is needed before an ex-felon is given an exemption. But lawmakers shouldn't overreach. Part of rehabilitation is employment, and these jobs are sometimes the only ones available for people with a criminal past and little formal education. Consider the flip side of the exemption statistic: As many as four in five caregivers who received exemptions by the state appear to be leading law-abiding lives. Having a job to help support themselves is probably a big part of the reason.