Investigations

CPS standards for hiring can be strict, or minimal

Second of two parts

In Kentucky, a state social worker was fired after being accused of driving a child while under the influence of drugs.

A social worker in Montana was fined and sent to jail for buying cocaine from one of her clients.

And in Sacramento, a Child Protective Services office worker assigned to the Family Reunification program was arrested for allegedly selling drugs in a liquor store parking lot minutes from her office.

On most days, child protection workers are society's unsung heroes, venturing into the edgiest neighborhoods to try to mend broken families. Even those without direct contact with children are intricately involved in their welfare, filling out sensitive paperwork or answering calls from anxious families.

Recent arrests of CPS workers on and off the job have prompted some states, including Texas, to consider mandating more rigorous criminal background checks and follow-up on existing employees.

But California, with its county-based child welfare system, has no uniformity in how these workers are screened for criminal histories, The Bee has found. The level of scrutiny a prospective CPS worker gets here – as well as child protection workers already on the job – depends on geography, and the policies and whims of individual counties.

Some of the state's most experienced child advocates were startled by the disparities, saying they had assumed that requirements for CPS work were universally strict.

Not so. An applicant for a welfare job in San Diego, for instance, would undergo both a California criminal background check and an FBI search. If the county hired the person, it would be notified of any subsequent arrests.

But many California counties opt for more minimal screening of their child protection workers – a bare-bones approach that has proven inadequate in other states.

Uneven screening standards

In its investigation, The Bee found that at least 68 Sacramento CPS workers – including front-line caseworkers – have criminal histories for a variety of alleged offenses, including drug use, family violence and welfare fraud.

The agency would not discuss its screening practices beyond furnishing a countywide policy, but the results highlight other inequities.

Prospective foster and adoptive parents undergo strict federal and state-mandated background screening that can be more stringent than that of CPS workers. The same is true for "kinship placements," or children who are removed from their homes and placed with relatives.

"Common sense dictates that CPS workers should be held to the same standards as foster families or kinship placements," said Robert Wilson, executive director of Sacramento Child Advocates, whose attorneys represent children in dependency court.

Some Sacramento CPS workers' arrests and convictions date back years, but Wilson said the same circumstances might prevent a relative – even one who has stayed clean for years – from ever taking in a child.

The Bee's investigation also found CPS workers whose criminal histories might prevent them from securing jobs in the private sector.

One woman lost her health care job and couldn't find work at restaurants or other businesses following her no-contest plea to felony insurance fraud in 2003. But she was hired at CPS as an office assistant, and only recently left the agency.

In California, the state leaves much of the discretion over who gets hired at CPS agencies to individual counties. Under the state's Welfare and Institutions Code, each county is charged with screening prospective employees "who are expected to have frequent and routine contact with children."

California Department of Justice spokesman Scott Gerber said the department provides criminal background checks for all of the counties' child protective services agencies.

But, Gerber said, some counties request only a state-level check while others ask – and pay more for – a federal-level search. Some counties contract with DOJ to be alerted to subsequent arrests, he said, and some do not.

State-level checks cost a county $32 per person and include subsequent arrest notification; FBI checks run $19 more. DOJ officials said they did not know why a number of counties decline to receive notices that their employees have run afoul with the law.

Agency mum on policies

Sacramento County officials have declined to be interviewed about their policies and practice. They provided only a copy of the countywide background-check policy – last revised in 1988.

In a Feb. 27 e-mail, CPS spokeswoman Laura McCasland did say the county receives subsequent arrest notifications.

In its policy, Sacramento County states that criminal history information will be obtained only for employees where there is a "demonstrable business necessity." That includes employees who have access to county money or where a client relationship exists, as it does with caseworkers.

CPS has its own list of positions subject to criminal history checks, from office assistants to family service workers to social workers. But the county's policy allows each department discretion to determine whether a conviction can "be disregarded on the basis of mitigating circumstances."

L.A. County's rigorous review

A check with other counties' child protection agencies reveals differing approaches and opinions about what is appropriate – or even legal.

In Los Angeles, all prospective employees of the county's Department of Children and Family Services are fingerprinted and run through the Department of Justice, according to spokeswoman Louise Grasmehr. Employees being promoted are checked again and the department has arranged with the DOJ to be notified of any subsequent arrests of employees.

Grasmehr said that exemptions are made, depending on the nature of the conviction, the time lapsed and the type of job in question. But she said there are "certain egregious convictions that are automatic disqualifiers," among them murder, child abuse and drug sales.

In Contra Costa County, the same initial checks are done of prospective employees. They remain on probation for nine months after being hired. But Contra Costa has no mechanism for checking on arrests after probation is passed, according to Joe Valentine, director of the county's employment and human services department.

"There are no legal tools to do that and, of course, no resources to do that even if we had the legal tools," Valentine said. "We don't really have a legal right to be informed if an employee commits a crime while they're off duty."

Drug histories; still on job

The Sacramento County CPS worker arrested on suspicion of drug dealing near the CPS office on Power Inn Road, beneath the distinctive clock tower, resigned from the agency while her court case was pending, The Bee learned.

The 48-year-old senior office assistant was charged in August 2007 with possession of cocaine for sale and pleaded no contest in December 2007 to a misdemeanor charge of harboring a felon, court documents state.

Other Sacramento CPS workers with drug convictions have stayed on the job. One 45-year-old family service worker was arrested in April 2008 on a charge of felony possession of cocaine base and was enrolled in a drug program. She remains on the CPS roster.

One social worker who faced felony methamphetamine possession charges twice in the late 1990s spent several years on probation, during which he was part of the sheriff's work project and attended drug classes. The cases were dismissed by 2000 and he joined CPS four years later.

Drug histories like these could be particularly damaging to anyone trying to assume care of a child, said Wilson, whose attorneys represent children every day in dependency court.

"(A) guy may have a prior marijuana conviction from 15 years ago, but he's got his act together, he's working and there's no indication of drugs in the house. And it would be a great placement for a kid," Wilson said. "And, unfortunately, that kinship placement is not available."

In California, a person who wants to become a foster or adoptive parent cannot have any felony convictions for child abuse or neglect, spousal abuse, crimes against a child, or other specific violent offenses, according to the federal government's list of non-exemptible crimes. Additionally, a foster care applicant would be rejected if he or she had a felony conviction in the last five years for physical assault, battery or drug- or alcohol-related offenses.

States eye tighter scrutiny

Until recently, the focus across the country has been on protecting front-line caseworkers from the erratic and sometimes dangerous families they serve. Several social services workers have been killed on the job, including one in Kentucky who was fatally beaten and stabbed in 2006 after taking a baby for a final visit with the child's birth mother.

Now, a few states are beginning to recognize that CPS workers themselves may need more rigorous screening.

In Texas, one caseworker involved with foster care children turned out to have a history of alleged indecent exposure, having been arrested for performing a sex act on himself in a park.

The case was identified last year by an Austin television station as part of its report that at least 370 employees of that state's Department of Family and Protective Services had criminal backgrounds.

While most of the offenses the station, KEYE, identified were misdemeanors, it found that workers had faced charges ranging from prostitution to drug possession to assault with bodily injury on a family member.

When Texas officials looked into it, they found a lack of follow-up screening within the agency. This year, Texas lawmakers are considering measures that would strengthen criminal background checks and require regular updates.

"Technology has reached the point where we should not have individuals with serious criminal histories falling through the cracks of our screening process, especially those working with children, seniors and the disabled," said state Sen. Jane Nelson via e-mail.

Arizona performed fingerprint background checks in 2005 on nearly 1,400 of that state's CPS workers, according to the Associated Press. When the results came back, officials tailored their responses: Some workers were pulled from having direct contact with children and placed on desk duty. Others were moved to non-driving positions. Some were given "good cause exemptions." A few were fired.

Kentucky also considered tightening its screening of child protection workers after a 34-year-old social worker was fired last year for driving a child while under the influence of drugs. The problem was discovered when the worker, who had driven the child some 115 miles for a court hearing, wound up in the wrong county, according to news accounts.

The worker was arrested again a short time later – and had been cited for reckless driving eight days before the incident with the child, who was reportedly unharmed.

In the end, Kentucky did not revise its background check policy. Currently, the state conducts criminal background checks of social services staff when they are hired and again when they are being considered for promotion or reclassification.

Case prompts Montana law

The importance of ongoing checks was illustrated in 2003 in Montana, where a 49-year-old social worker pleaded guilty to buying cocaine from a client after promising him he could return home if he supplied her with the drugs.

Montana state Sen. Carolyn Squires successfully passed legislation in 2005 that created the first fingerprint and background check for such workers.

Despite initial privacy concerns among Montanans, Squires said, the bill passed and has been working well.

A California attorney who works on behalf of foster children in numerous states said he believes child welfare workers must be thoroughly screened.

"To hold them accountable to a high standard – given the magnitude of power that they have – makes a lot of sense," said William Grimm of the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law.

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