While the Patrick administration appears to support national criminal background checks for people hired to care for the intellectually disabled, the administration has failed to apply for federal grant funding that would help it design a federal background check program.
The administration also does not seem to have aggressively pursued proposed legislation in Massachusetts that would authorize national background checks of people hired to work in the Department of Developmental Services system.
This is an administration that has been nothing short of enthusiastic about closing state-run care facilities and moving the residents in them to community-based group homes. But as far as protecting those people from abuse and neglect in the community system is concerned, the administration’s level of enthusiasm seems to drop off sharply.
National background checks involve matching a job applicant’s fingerprints against a federal database maintained by the FBI. This table I compiled shows how each state compared as of 2008 regarding national background check requirements, and which states have taken advantage of federal grant funds available since 2010 to design a national background check program.
As the table shows, Massachusetts was one of 16 states as of 2008 that had no national background check requirements. (The information is based on a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.) It is still the case today that Massachusetts requires only in-state criminal background checks of people hired to work in the DDS system.
As the table also shows, Massachusetts is among as many as 27 states that haven’t applied for the grants that have been available from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under the Affordable Care Act “to design comprehensive national background check programs for direct patient access employees.” A total of 23 states and Puerto Rico have been awarded a total of $53.4 million in those grants, which have been as high as $3 million per state.
Every advocacy group for the disabled that I know of agrees that state-only background checks are not sufficient in screening applicants seeking jobs in caring for the disabled because those checks turn up only convictions for criminal activity in that state. The checks do not identify criminal convictions that a job applicant might have from another state.
In testimony to the state Legislature’s Judiciary Committee last month, State Representative Martin Walsh stated that the state Disabled Persons Protection Commission had identified 1,000 cases in which “criminal abusers” were working in Massachusetts, and that one out of five of them had come from outside the state.
I contacted the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the Department of Developmental Services regarding the federal grant program, and received a response from Victor Hernandez, a deputy assistant DDS commissioner. Hernandez stated in an email that the state has not applied for a CMS grant because Rep. Walsh’s legislation authorizing national background checks by DDS is not yet in place. Once such legislation is enacted, Hernandez wrote, “we will pursue the federal dollars.”
That sounds reasonable enough except that under the grant rules, the state is not obliged to wait for enactment of a national background check statute before receiving the funding. In an online FAQ about the grant program, the CMS states that in cases in which “necessary state legislation is not in place prior to the start of the grant period,” CMS would “work with the state to identify a portion of the potential grant funds that would be available immediately and additional funds that may be available at a later time when the additional authority is in place.”
I also received an email from CMS, which stated that there are a number of states “that have been in the (national background check grant) program for several years and have yet to be successful in implementing state laws.”
I wrote back to Hernandez to ask if the Patrick administration has worked with CMS to identify a portion of the grant funds that might be immediately available to the state. I haven’t yet heard back.
It’s not only the administration that can’t seem to get excited about protecting the developmentally disabled from abuse and neglect. The Legislature as a whole doesn’t seem to have an attitude that is much different in that regard.
As I’ve previously noted, Walsh’s proposed national background check legislation for new workers in the DDS system has been stalled for a number of years in the Legislature. Last year, the Legislature did pass a bill to implement a national background check requirement for people hired to work in public and private school systems in the state. Massachusetts, however, was reportedly the last state in the nation to enact a national background check for school personnel.
This year’s national background check bill for DDS system workers (H. 1674) was filed by Walsh in January and referred to the Judiciary Committee at that time. The committee only got around to holding a public hearing on it on July 9, and still has not acted to approve the measure.
Walsh noted in his testimony to the Judiciary Committee that his bill had been approved twice in the past two years by that committee only to be sent to the House Ways and Means Committee to die a slow death.
That the developmentally disabled are subject to abuse and neglect in the community system of care is hardly disputed by anyone who looks at the matter objectively. The VOR has cited an “alarming number” of deaths and cases of abuse of developmentally disabled individuals around the country, and noted the “prevalence of preventable deaths at privately run group homes across this nation.” Community-based care, which is primarily delivered in widely dispersed group homes, is by definition harder to monitor and oversee than care delivered in larger congregate-care settings.
But whether abuse, neglect, or misappropriation of funds occurs in the privatized or state-run systems of care, the federal CMS has recognized those three issues as “a widespread problem for millions of Americans receiving LTC (long-term care) services.”
Let’s hope that both the Patrick administration and the state Legislature begin soon to place a higher priority on finding a solution to those problems. The administration could show it is placing a priority on addressing abuse and neglect, at least, by applying immediately for a CMS grant to design a workable national background check program in Massachusetts; and the Legislature could begin by acting as quickly as possible to pass Rep. Walsh’s national background check bill.