Job applicants with some criminal history on their resumes have no problem getting approved to work among the state’s most vulnerable foster care children, according to a Texas Tribune/Houston Chronicle investigation.
A review of background check letters the Department of Family and Protective Services sent Daystar Residential Inc. — a Houston-area facility that made headlines for forcing disabled girls to fight each other — shows that dozens of potential workers were approved for hire by the state despite arrests ranging from prostitution to assault with a deadly weapon.
It’s unclear whether Daystar hired these workers; the state redacted all employee names. But their approval for employment raises questions about DFPS’ background check process as lawmakers meet in Austin today to discuss abuse and neglect within Texas’ 80 residential treatment centers for troubled kids.
“Our goal is to strike a balance between protecting the children in these facilities and the presumption that an individual applying for a job is innocent until proven guilty,” said DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins. “There are certain criminal convictions whose nature or severity does not indicate a risk to children, or that so much time has passed to indicate there is no longer risk of occurrence.”
According to the Tribune/Chronicle review, of the 536 background checks the state performed on potential Daystar employees between 2007 and May 2010, 136 resulted in a criminal match or a hit on the state’s abuse and neglect registry. While some of the job applicants’ criminal history matches involved misdemeanors like evading arrest, fraud by check, speeding, DWIs or drug possession, others had histories that included arrests for robbery, aggravated assault and domestic violence.
On Dec. 4, 2008, DFPS told Daystar that a job applicant arrested in Houston in 2000 for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon — a second-degree felony — was okay to hire. “This person’s criminal history does not include a conviction that would prohibit the person from being present in a childcare operation,” DFPS licensing representative Yolanda Hernandez wrote.
In 2007, a DFPS licensing representative told Daystar that an applicant with a 2001 “credit card or debit card abuse” conviction “must not be retained in a position allowing contact with children while the request for risk evaluation is prepared and considered.” Yet a 2009 Daystar job applicant with a 1991 arrest for prostitution, 1993 and 1994 arrests for theft and a 2008 conviction for reckless driving sailed through the criminal background process. Hernandez wrote Daystar: “This person’s criminal history does not pose a threat and does not represent a standards violation, therefore no further action or follow-up is needed.”
In many of the cases the Tribune and the Chronicle reviewed, it’s unknown if the person involved was ever convicted, because the letters the agency sends to child care operations are often missing such information. And, ultimately, it’s unknown whether Daystar ever hired the employees with serious arrests. Daystar attorney John Carsey said it would be unrealistic to expect a residential treatment center to have a staff free of employees with criminal histories.
“When you consider what happens to people when they’re in high school or college, with hot checks or various things, you could easily end up with something on your record,” Carsey said. “It would be unfair to the labor pool ... to say nobody can work at a facility who has anything on their criminal history.”
Before potential employees are hired to work with children in Texas, they must submit to a criminal background check, one performed by the Department of Public Safety and forwarded to DFPS.
Some minor offenses or older convictions that have no relationship to caring for a child — misdemeanor theft, or an old burglary, for example — don’t stand in the way of a hire, Crimmins said. But some felony offenses, including crimes against people, robbery, public indecency, stalking and failing to report the sexual assault of a child, are supposed to permanently bar an applicant from working at a center or any other child care setting.
Applicants who have committed misdemeanor offenses in those categories — and certain drug offenders with convictions within the last decade — are eligible for hire, so long as they pass a risk evaluation process. DFPS officials say they consider the severity and circumstances of the crime, the length of time since it occurred, proof of rehabilitation and the applicant’s job responsibilities. “We require risk evaluations for those convictions where we believe there may be a correlation between the crime and caring for a child,” Crimmins said, “… but where there also may be room for a person to be rehabilitated.”
But advocates question why these facilities would want to hire anyone with a criminal record in the first place — and why the state allows them to do it. The reality, child welfare expert Susan Watson said, is that the salaries at treatment centers are painfully low. The facilities are often in remote, unmonitored areas. And workers are undereducated and often simply don’t care about the kids. “I appreciate that it’s really crappy pay for demanding work,” said Watson, who coordinates Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid’s Individual Rights Group. “But they hire those kinds of folks in shelter care facilities, and it’s just asking for trouble.”