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A Times Editorial

Put children first

The case of Dorothy Sampson-Monroe demonstrates why Florida needs stricter rules on when convicted criminals may care for children as day care workers, foster parents or counselors.

The state needs to allow the career path as an option for rehabilitated residents who have served their time, but it also needs additional tools for revoking the privilege when suspicion of abuse arises. Children's welfare must be the priority.

The state generally prohibits a criminal convicted of serious crimes from working with children unless that person convinces the Department of Children and Families that he or she is rehabilitated and deserves an exemption. Sampson-Monroe was 10 years removed from the last of three convictions for felony cocaine possession when she received an exemption in 2005. But after opening Just For Kids day care center in Tampa, she was arrested a second time by police on suspicion of child abuse, on allegations she had struck four children. Her previous arrest occurred when she had been caring for children in her home. The prosecutor ultimately dropped the cases.

Under state law, the Department of Children and Families said it had no authority to revoke her exemption, though Hillsborough County was able to shut down her day care center on a technicality, alleging her application contained incorrect information. But she is still free to work somewhere else. That is unacceptable.

But that's not the only gap in a system that has granted more than 5,800 criminals' exemptions since 1985, according to a report by the St. Petersburg Times' Rebecca Catalanello. Child care centers often put workers on the job before completing a background check as required by state law. And the waiting period for someone with criminal convictions who seeks an exemption is three years after their last offense — a time line that would make it possible for someone to be eligible for an exemption while still in prison. The state should tie eligibility to the end of the criminal's sentence, not to the date of an offense.

Parents should also be able to easily learn when a convicted criminal is caring for their children. Now the cost is $24 for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to perform a criminal records check for each child care worker.

Despite these serious gaps, the good news is that it appears that in most cases, DCF was right to offer a second chance. There are tremendous success stories of ex-felons leading upstanding lives. To react to the Sampson-Monroe case by creating a blanket rule barring people with serious criminal backgrounds from working with children for years and years would be a mistake. Gainful employment is often the key to turning one's life around, and jobs in child care are among a limited pool available to people with a criminal past and little formal education.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon has already taken one step. He has accepted personal responsibility and pledged to be the final arbiter on all new exemption applications. But more needs to be done. When lawmakers return to Tallahassee in March, they should grant DCF new powers for revoking exemptions and provide a way for parents to more easily know who is caring for their children. They should extend the length of time before a criminal is eligible for an exemption and clearly ban employment at any day care center until a background check is complete.

Put children first 12/20/09 [Last modified: Sunday, December 20, 2009 3:30am]
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