Sacramento County officials have revised who reviews criminal background checks for job applicants at Child Protective Services, removing the authority from top CPS managers and handing it to a county executive who oversees the agency.
News of the move comes in the aftermath of a Bee investigation that found 7 percent of the agency's 969 workers have criminal records in Sacramento County. And it follows a year of controversy for the child protection agency as it faces criticism for its handling of a string of children's deaths.
The Bee's investigation found that at least 68 CPS workers have criminal histories in Sacramento County alone, and that the number likely is higher because other counties were not checked and because some names were too common to confirm.
Charges or convictions discovered in CPS workers' backgrounds included drug possession, illegal weapons possession, domestic violence, prostitution and repeatedly driving drunk.
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The county has repeatedly declined to comment on what criminal background checks it makes before hiring an employee. After the newspaper's investigation was published Sunday, Laura McCasland, a county spokeswoman, responded by e-mail to a list of questions previously submitted by The Bee.
In the past, McCasland said, applicants whose state Department of Justice background checks turned up a criminal history were reviewed for hire by Laura Coulthard, CPS' top official, and her three division managers.
McCasland said that authority has been transferred to Coulthard's boss, Sacramento County Health and Human Services Director Lynn Frank. Asked when that change occurred, McCasland did not respond.
McCasland's e-mail raised other questions about how the agency handles applicants' backgrounds.
McCasland said in her response that people whose convictions were expunged by a court after they proved they had been rehabilitated are not required to divulge the past conviction to the county unless they "are running for political office." She said, however, that the conviction would show up on the DOJ background check.
But prominent legal experts say that interpretation of disclosure requirements is wrong.
Sacramento defense attorneys William Portanova and Don Heller, both former federal prosecutors, said the law clearly states that someone applying for work at a public agency must disclose a felony or misdemeanor conviction even if it has been expunged.
"Ordinarily, people can expunge their records following the successful completion of probation, and in the future they can keep their convictions confidential with one exception," Portanova said. "That exception is any application for any employment or licensing by any government agency must carry with it full disclosure of the conviction even though it had been expunged."
Portanova said that the only caveat is that a potential government employer or application form must specifically ask about past convictions, but he added that such questions are routine.
"What employer in their right mind, let alone someone entrusted with the public protection of children, would fail to ask such an obvious question?" he said.
McCasland was asked by The Bee whether the CPS application poses that question, but she had not responded as of Wednesday evening.
Portanova added that the interpretation CPS provided saying past convictions do not have to be disclosed is "100 percent wrong."
"It's not only factually and legally wrong, but it's not the policy of Sacramento County," he said. "I worked for Sacramento County and I was asked. I worked for the district attorney. All employees, even legal interns, are asked."
The self-help center on the California Courts Web site also makes clear that, even if convictions are dismissed under Penal Code 1203.4 – as was the case for some CPS workers whose cases The Bee reviewed – applicants for government employment or a government license must answer "Yes – Conviction Dismissed" if asked.
Once the information is disclosed, the agency agrees not to use it against the applicant. Not disclosing the information, however, could result in a felony charge of perjury.
In her e-mail, McCasland said many crimes could preclude someone from working at CPS. Calls, she said, are made "on a case by case basis."
"Anything that was a violent crime, child abuse, serious drug use or sales would require additional review," she wrote.
The Bee found instances of all of those crimes in the backgrounds of workers involved with CPS.
Some were current; others dated back decades.
McCasland said the length of time since an offense was committed "is one of the variables that is reviewed."
"A nexus between the position and the crime is the most significant variable when it comes to hiring," she added. "The nature of the crime is also considered."