Capitol Alert

Audit slams California agencies for lax social service background checks

State Auditor Elaine Howle presents findings to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee at the California state Capitol in 2011. A decision by the California Department of Justice to stop providing social services sentencing and conviction information considered valuable in determining whether people with criminal histories can work in licensed facilities could be putting children, adults and elderly clients at risk, according to a state audit released Tuesday.
State Auditor Elaine Howle presents findings to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee at the California state Capitol in 2011. A decision by the California Department of Justice to stop providing social services sentencing and conviction information considered valuable in determining whether people with criminal histories can work in licensed facilities could be putting children, adults and elderly clients at risk, according to a state audit released Tuesday. Sacramento Bee file

California is failing in its effort to screen potential social service workers for criminal convictions and could be putting children, adults and elderly clients at risk, according to a state audit released Tuesday.

The California Department of Social Services’ Community Care Licensing Division, which oversees and regulates nearly 75,000 facilities statewide, is charged with ensuring the safety of a wide range of people, including those with disabilities and illnesses, elderly adults and children. It reviews background checks from the state Department of Justice on applicants for jobs at the facilities and decides whether those with criminal convictions can be hired.

But auditors found that the state Department of Justice stopped routinely providing social services with sentencing information in 2016 because state law didn’t explicitly require it. It also began withholding information about some arrests and convictions.

Poor communication between state departments prevented the division from receiving information about administrative actions against workers, auditors said.

The investigation also found that social services staff did not always review complete criminal histories before allowing workers into facilities, ignoring convictions for relatively minor crimes. Of 18 background-check case records reviewed by the auditor, it said, 17 were granted or denied exemptions without considering all the required information.

Spotty information about workers’ criminal histories or administrative actions led to delays that could put clients at risk, the audit said.

For example, the social services department approved the hiring of an individual before learning the person had received an administrative action for sexually abusing a resident in a nursing facility, the audit said. After the department had the information, auditors said, it took four months to remove the worker from the facility.

“Because Social Services took nearly four months to remove this individual from its care facility, it failed to fully protect the clients of the facility,” the audit said.

The audit recommended requiring the social services department to wait until it receives criminal histories before granting workers access to care facilities, as well as requiring it and other health care-related agencies to have agreements for sharing information about administrative actions against employees with one another.

The department agreed with many of the audit’s findings and said in response that it was already moving to change its procedures.

The audit also made recommendations for changes in state law, saying lawmakers should add to the current list of crimes for which workers could be prevented from working at a facility.

The division already can’t grant exemptions for most incidences of rape, pimping or pandering of a minor and elder abuse. However, it can make exceptions for many similar crimes, including pimping and pandering of non-minors and identity theft.

The audit report said in the past three years, more than 600 individuals applying for jobs had a record that mentioned at least one of the similar crimes – 97 percent of them identify theft. Forty of them were granted exemptions, it said.

The audit was requested in May 2016 by Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, in response to allegations that previous recommendations about social services background checks weren’t being followed. A constituent who worked for the Department of Social Services said the licensing division was providing exemptions for applicants with a criminal background to begin working at these facilities prior to completion of clearances for any arrests or convictions, said Bob Alvarez, Galgiani’s chief of staff.

The audit recommended that the Legislature amend state law to require the Department of Justice to provide all information needed for making exemption decisions. A bill has already been proposed to require better access to its criminal history information. SB 420 was introduced by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, and is set for hearing later this month.

Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.

Robin Opsahl: 916-321-1176, @robinlopsahl

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