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Convictions of Child Workers to Be Revealed

Safety: Law is intended to inform parents, but providers fear that it will unfairly damage employees' reputations.


Thousands of parents in California will receive some disturbing news in the next several weeks: Someone with a criminal record is working at their child's day-care center.

The information is part of a controversial new state requirement that orders all facilities to inform parents if an employee at their center or home was guilty of a crime.

The regulation is intended to keep parents informed, but child-care providers and several advocacy groups say it will unfairly sully the reputations of valued employees and unnecessarily cause panic for parents. They call the regulation a well-intentioned but misguided way of fixing a flawed background-checking system.

Officials at the Department of Social Services, which oversees licensed child care, say they are doing their best to balance the interests of parents and the concerns of providers.

"This is a very difficult matter for some people, but at the same time, we have gotten an equal number of calls from parents who are very eager for this information," said Rita Saenz, director of the department.

About 6,156 of the 275,148 people licensed to work or interact with children in child care have a criminal background, according to Social Services. Their crimes are mostly misdemeanors, such as petty theft and check forgery, but some have older felonies, such as drug possession convictions.

Licensed workers include gardeners, cooks, administrators and maintenance workers, as well as teachers. In private homes in which there are day-care centers, all adults who live there also must submit to a background check by the FBI and the Department of Justice.

If a person's offense is old or minor--and they can show they are now upstanding citizens--Social Services can grant what are called criminal exemptions, allowing them to work in child-care facilities.

But late last month, reports in the Orange County Register shed light on a number of cases in which criminals slipped through the system and obtained licenses to work in child care.

The next day, on March 21, Gov. Gray Davis ordered a six-month moratorium on granting criminal exemptions and an immediate review of child-care background checks. He asked Social Services to adopt "emergency regulations" requiring child-care providers to inform parents about employees with criminal exemptions.

Social Services ordered that providers have all parents sign a form acknowledging that they have been advised of any criminal exemptions at the center. Anyone simultaneously caring for children from more than one family in their home or center is required to be licensed if they charge a fee.

But although child-care providers must identify past offenders in their employ, they are not allowed to name the crime or say when it occurred. Critics say such vague information will create more problems than it solves.

"It creates doubt in the mind of the parent, because as a parent I want all the information," said Sheryl Cohen, director of a child-care center in Lomita. "But as an administrator, you can't give them the whole picture. It totally puts you in the middle of this."

The types of crimes that would probably worry parents most--child molestation and rape--are not crimes for which criminal exemptions are granted. In California, about 50 crimes, including murder, child abuse, rape and spousal abuse, bar a person from ever working with children.

Sometimes, the FBI and Department of Justice databases fail to turn up convictions, and that is how some people with criminal records slip into the child-care system. Receiving notice that someone has been cleared to work with children does not tackle the problem of spotty background checks, child-care workers said.

Child-care workers say news of the regulations caught them completely off guard. For weeks, they've been trying to find a way to comply with the rules without creating hysteria, they said. Some owners of child-care centers, who asked not to be identified, said they would no longer hire people with criminal exemptions.

At the Child Care Law Center in San Francisco, lawyers are receiving several calls a day about the governor's order, said attorney Christine Cleary.

"It's a major concern. It's no exaggeration to say this is huge," Cleary said.

Many day-care center owners, leery of panic-stricken parents and lawsuits from employees, have decided to hold off on making any announcements, but the law center has advised that they comply immediately or face license suspensions.

For now, the law center is not taking an official position on the new regulation, but it is studying the legal ramifications of the order.

Officials at Social Services say they will not cite people immediately for failing to notify parents. Officials say most child-care workers with criminal exemptions are good people who made mistakes a long time ago.

But conveying such a message might be easier said than done, said one child-care worker who will soon be outed as a former criminal.

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