Oct 1, 2009

System puts Felons in Caregiver Jobs

By Bob DeMarco
Alzheimer's Reading Room

This story pertains to Florida but could be happening anywhere in the country. The article highlights the need to do good due diligence if you are going to put your loved into the hands of a hired caregiver, or some type of Alzheimer's care facility.

My suggestion is that you try to determine not only the reputation but also the "track record" of anyone you decide to hire or pay for caregiving services.

More than 8,700 people initially barred from being caregivers due to criminal records have been granted special permission by the state to work with children, the elderly and the infirm, a Sun Sentinel investigation found.

About 1,800 — or one in five — were arrested again, some within days of the determination that they were of "good moral character" and could be trusted to care for the state's most vulnerable residents.

Felons have been allowed to work in day care centers, assisted living facilities and nursing homes through an exemption system created by Florida legislators in 1985.

Flaws in Florida's background screening system have put children, seniors and the disabled in the care of felons with records that include rape, child molestation and murder, according to an investigation by the Sun Sentinel.

State law requires employees of day care centers, assisted living facilities and group homes to undergo a background check, but they can begin work before the screening is complete, the paper reported this week.

At least 2,400 day care workers were on the job before their records turned up, including a Tampa man with this note in his screening record: "EVIL DUDE-RAPE+KIDNAP+SEX ASLT," a statewide database of screenings since 1985 shows.

Hundreds of people in Hillsborough County charged with offenses such as theft, prostitution, robbery, arson and other crimes received state exemptions to care for children, elderly and the disabled, according to the newspaper's databases.

More than 2,000 screening records from the Tampa Bay area are listed. Pinellas County tops the local list with 2,240 records of exemptions. Hillsborough has 853. Pasco has 270.

Rehabilitation opens doors

One of the offenders is William Charewicz, accused of beating a 78-year-old man with Alzheimer's at a Pasco County assisted living facility in 2007.

He was convicted of battery on an elderly person and is serving a three-year prison sentence.

Charewicz pleaded no contest to stealing a car three months before he was hired and was on probation.

Even when criminal offenses are discovered, people can work based on little more than a promise not to break the law again.

Through an exemption system created by lawmakers two decades ago, Florida has cleared more than 8,700 people with criminal records to be caregivers. They include 45 murderers, 12 registered sex offenders and 200 people with histories of harming children.

Exemptions are supposed to be granted only with proof of rehabilitation, but about 1,800 of the people approved - 1 in 5 - were arrested again, some within days of the state's determination that they could be trusted to care for vulnerable people.

"It's totally unacceptable. Obviously, this has become a huge loophole that needs to be closed," said Nan Rich, D-Weston, vice chairwoman of the Florida Senate's Children, Families and Elder Affairs committee.

A sex abuse scandal at a Miami day care in the mid- 1980s prompted the first of several state laws requiring background checks for caregivers and allowing for exemptions.

Florida now has a patchwork system with glaring inconsistencies.

Employees at day cares and facilities for the disabled undergo a national criminal check. Caregivers for the elderly are checked only for offenses in Florida, with some exceptions.

Nursing home employees must pass a background check before they can work, but other caregivers can be on the job before the screening results come back, a process that can take months.

"All this time, these people are working," said Sandy Pillar, who tracks screenings at the state Department of Children & Families. "We've had people working in child care who were pedophiles."

In West Palm Beach, an employee worked for two months at a YMCA skate park before a background check revealed he was facing child sex charges in California. In October, a baby was severely burned at a Fort Lauderdale area day care while under the watch of a woman on felony probation who was working without a background check.

"We've got to do a much better job than what we're currently doing," said DCF Secretary George Sheldon. "We have a serious responsibility to protect kids."

Bartending restrictions tougher

Under Florida law, it's more difficult for felons to tend bar than to work in a day care center or nursing home. They must wait five years before they can serve drinks but only three years to get an exemption to work in child and adult care.

Two state agencies, DCF and the Agency for Health Care Administration, approve exemptions for caregivers. Little independent background investigation is done, and serious crimes are missed.

Lucia Rivera had a record for aggravated assault when she won an exemption from AHCA in 2005. She got a job at a Central Florida nursing home and last year was charged with stealing more than $36,000 from patients' accounts.

"Most of those people were bedridden, comatose," said Kathy Foust, a guardian for several victims.

Latoera O'Neal, an admitted cocaine dealer in Ohio, got an exemption from DCF to care for the disabled in 2004. Three years later, while working at a group home in Fort Walton Beach, O'Neal dragged a mentally disabled man out of a van by his feet, slamming his head on the floorboard and the pavement, an arrest report states. She now faces a charge of abusing a disabled person.

State lawmakers are pledging to reform the exemption process. "It sounds like they're being granted all too freely and that the exemption portion of (the law) needs a complete rewrite," said state Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs.

Sources of this information -- Sun Sentinel and the Associated Press.

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