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Arrests of Caregivers Raise Alarm

About 30,000 workers at state-licensed centers have been cited since January. Officials seek more funds to investigate the cases.

June 14, 2003|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

A new detection system found that about 30,000 employees who care for children, the disabled and the elderly at state-licensed facilities have been arrested since January, alarming officials, who say they need more workers to keep track of the arrests.

"If timely action is not taken, vulnerable children and adults may remain in substandard care facilities or under the care of abusive or neglectful providers," California Department of Social Services Director Rita Saenz warned in a letter obtained by The Times. Her agency oversees 738,000 caregivers across the state.

The number of arrest reports is roughly double what the department received last year. Officials believe the surge is due not to an increase in crime among caregivers but improved technology that gives the state more accurate arrest data.

The vast majority of the arrests pertain to minor offenses such as petty theft or creating a public nuisance, Saenz said.

Most police departments now transmit fingerprints electronically rather than manually, allowing the state Department of Justice to quickly determine whether an arrestee works in one of 87,000 community care facilities across the state.

As a result, Saenz said in an interview Friday, her staff has been swamped by some 1,500 arrest reports per week.

In an urgent appeal to the California Legislature, the Social Services Department is seeking more money to hire 52 workers to handle the growing backlog of arrest reports.

"We were completely unprepared for this," Saenz said as she dashed to the Capitol to make the case for fresh funding. "This really is an issue of public safety."

Only 2% of the arrests so far this year involve so-called "non-exemptible" crimes such as child abuse or rape.

Employees who are arrested for any "non-exemptible" crime -- including murder, kidnapping, incest or possessing child pornography -- are immediately removed from the facility as the department launches an investigation.

In some such cases, the person is already in jail or has left the job. In less serious cases, the department's investigators independently review the arrest before deciding whether to revoke a license or dismiss an employee, a process that can take months.

Saenz declined to release data showing what crimes prompted each arrest, citing both confidentiality concerns and imprecise records. The department also could not say how many of the 30,000 workers arrested in recent months had been dismissed.

"We don't do a lot of breaking down in exact detail because we don't have the staff to do that," Saenz said. Instead, her employees concentrate on immediately notifying facilities that employ people who have been arrested for major crimes, leaving the less serious cases to steadily pile up.

Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles, said the backlog of arrest reports reflects a troubling trend. Already, she said, community care facilities are getting less scrutiny because funding for yearly inspections has been cut.

"It's leading to a trend where we're keeping less of a watchful eye on the well-being of our children being placed in these facilities," she said.

The Department of Social Services is responsible for licensing community care facilities, including child-care centers, foster homes, group homes for children, adult day-care programs and residential facilities that care for developmentally disabled or elderly adults. The majority of the facilities, about 61,000, are child-care centers.

All told, these agencies are authorized to care for up to 1.4 million people, including 1.1 million children, according to state records.

People who apply to work at the facilities, as well as foster families who take in children, must undergo extensive criminal background checks. Their fingerprints are sent through three separate databases, including a child abuse index. Once approved, they are monitored by the state Department of Justice to make sure their records stay clean.

Years ago, if a child-care worker were arrested for, say, driving drunk, it could take months before his inky fingerprints were processed by state officials. But now almost all fingerprints are transmitted electronically and compared with state files on licensed workers, said DOJ spokeswoman Christina Clem.

"If a person has a community care license on file, it's a hit," Clem said.

It is then up to the Department of Social Services, once it receives the arrest report, to conduct an investigation to see whether a facility should be closed or a worker removed. In most cases, investigators try to obtain the crime report and contact the arresting officer. Sometimes they also interview witnesses and victims.

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