Day care workers with a criminal record, unchecked for weeks
Kaylene Vallery balances her job as a full-time nurse with the schedules of two very active little boys. Day care is a necessity in her family. Vallery said she was comforted by the thought that the folks taking care of her kids had all passed background checks, until one day when she noticed a teacher was no longer there.
"There had been an incident where the teacher had been there for several days, then her background check - something came back - and she was not allowed to work there anymore," Vallery explained.
Vallery was horrified and immediately called the state director of Childcare Network.
"She basically just told me that due to reasons including background checks that sometimes employees once they're hired and allowed to start they're not allowed to stay," Vallery said.
The day care released the following statement to KATV:
As a leader in high-quality early education, we eagerly comply with all rules and regulations pertaining to the safety and care of our children. We employ top-notch early childhood educators and complete both reference checks and mandatory records check on each employee we hire. As always, we support any efforts in Arkansas that will continue to improve the efficiency of our regulatory systems.
Childcare Network was, in fact, following the law. According to the Department of Human Services, a day care has 10 days from the date of hire to submit a background check. During that time, the new employee is allowed to work. For most, the state background check clears within days, but if someone has lived outside of Arkansas within the last 5 years, a federal background check is required. The FBI check takes an average of six weeks. The employee can work in the classroom the entire time.
"There is like a 30 day time lapse in there that you have no idea who is taking care of your child," Vallery said.
According to the DHS, that grace period is necessary for a day care that suddenly finds itself short-staffed.
"If there's not a grace period to get people through the background check system, if they have to have that on the front end, then they would have to either send children home or be short staffed. Then that puts children at risk because they may not get adequate supervision," explained David Griffin, Assistant Director of the Division of Child Care for the Department of Human Services.
Griffin has been with the licensing department for 32 years, and so far his department has never uncovered abuse of a child during the gap period. However, he has uncovered tragic situations with short-staffed day cares.
"We know that lack of supervision in the past has led to some pretty serious problems, including a few deaths in childcare," Griffin said.
The state acknowledges both scenarios pose a risk, so the regulation requires employees whose checks haven't come back yet to be on "closely supervised" probation. However, the regulation stops short of banning an unchecked employee from being alone with a child.
"The regulation is not that specific. It does talk about a probationary period, and it talks about close supervision," Griffin said.
Vallery believes the rule lacks teeth.
"I understand the need to have a backup there, but I don't think that we can tell our children, 'I'm sorry that something happened to you, but we allowed it to keep our ratios'," Vallery said.
Change to the system could soon be coming. DHS is in the process of developing a new system which could dramatically shorten the gap. Instead of batching background checks through Arkansas State Police, the system would allow a day care to submit the request electronically to the FBI.
"We're looking at a turnaround of instead of six weeks, down to probably two to three business days," Griffin said.
Even with a much shorter gap, there is still the concern about supervision. Unless lawmakers eliminate the 10 day grace period or DHS changes the rules and bans unchecked employees from being alone with children, Vallery says she can't feel comfortable.
"Especially if it's a new teacher, in the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'Wow, I really hope that you're a good person because I'm trading my kid off to you at this point'," Vallery said.
DHS hopes to have the new system in place by fall 2017. After that, Griffin said he is open to taking another look at the regulations and possibly making a change that would satisfy the concern of parents like Vallery.
In the meantime, Vallery has started a change.org page to garner support for new regulations.