Pressure mounted Tuesday for a requirement that California's child protection agencies conduct criminal background checks on prospective social workers before they can be hired.
A bill that would require county child welfare agencies to conduct such checks passed its first test Tuesday in the Legislature amid guarded questioning by state senators.
The proposal by Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, would bar counties from hiring child protection social workers who have been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, felony spousal abuse, child abuse or a sex offense that requires registration.
"It only makes sense to me ," said Ashburn. "We're trying to narrow the possibility that children are further neglected or abused – or worse."
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Ashburn said his SB 774 stemmed from a Bee series published last month revealing that at least 7 percent of the employees at Sacramento County's Child Protective Services had criminal histories in this county.
The Bee found that at least 68 Sacramento County CPS workers had a variety of convictions or arrests for crimes that included drug possession or sales, weapons possession, spousal abuse and prostitution.
Ashburn's bill would apply only to social workers, rather than other employees who do not have direct daily access to children or their families.
None of the Sacramento social workers found to have criminal histories was convicted of crimes that would be covered by Ashburn's bill, although four had multiple convictions for driving under the influence or drug possession.
Crimes involving other employees who were not social workers included grand theft, spousal abuse and witness tampering.
Ashburn said he would have made the bill tougher if he thought it would succeed, specifically citing concern over the multiple DUI convictions by workers who transport children.
But he said the background checks for the serious convictions he listed will "provide a greater degree of safety" for vulnerable children.
"We will get something out of the Legislature that will be better than what we have today," said the senator, who has written previous background-check legislation. "Given the revelations – especially in your articles – every county ought to be on this voluntarily."
Several senators were skeptical, among them Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who said he believed that banning a social worker's hiring based on a list of offenses was "kind of a harsh position."
"Where is the leeway?" he asked.
Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association, told the Senate Human Services Committee that he generally supported the bill but wanted it amended to apply only to those workers who have direct contact with children.
Mecca, whose group lobbies the Legislature on behalf of county welfare agencies, was critical of The Bee's coverage of Sacramento CPS, saying the agency had taken "quite a beating from its local paper and, to a large extent, unfairly."
But he said the coverage has revealed a lack of uniformity in California in how counties screen new and existing workers at the county-based child protection agencies.
In a separate action, the State Department of Social Services issued a notice Friday to all county child welfare agencies urging them to "consider the options available to conduct a criminal record background check for both prospective and current employees."
The Bee found that practices vary widely in California, where some counties pay extra for an FBI background check of CPS employees, while others limit the search to the state level.
Some counties request "subsequent arrest notifications" from the state Department of Justice, while others do not. The notifications, also known as "rap-backs," inform the agency if an employee is arrested later.
State Social Services Director John A. Wagner told The Bee that while the state cannot mandate how counties administer their programs and screen their workers, he said he believed "there's definitely room for improvement."
A spokeswoman said for the state Department of Social Services said the agency has not yet taken a position on Ashburn's bill.
Ashburn's proposal makes clear that those who have received a "certificate of rehabilitation" after a conviction would not be subject to the hiring prohibition. To avoid the state budget hurdle, the bill allows counties to pass on the costs of processing criminal histories to applicants.
A representative of the Service Employees International Union expressed concern about that aspect, saying some young social workers fresh out of school might be unable to pay the fee of about $70.
Ashburn said he believed it was reasonable.
"People who want to work for a government agency should pay the cost of having their background cleared," he said. "I don't know why the taxpayer should pick up that obligation."
The senator said his home county, Kern County, has faced public scrutiny similar to that in Sacramento County over child deaths.