A new national criminal background check law in Massachusetts may well have a major, positive impact on services and care for people with developmental disabilities in the state.
But under the law, the background check requirement is delayed for many, if not most, current employees in the Department of Developmental Services system for more than four years, until January 2019. The requirement is delayed for a year and a half for prospective employees in the system.
The long-awaited law, which was signed by Governor Patrick last week, authorizes national criminal background checks for persons hired to work in an unsupervised capacity with persons with developmental disabilities. The law will ultimately require that both current and prospective caregivers in the system submit their fingerprints to a federal database maintained by the FBI. The law applies to DDS employees, employees of corporate service providers to the department, and caregivers over the age of 15 of persons living at home.
Up to now, persons hired to care for clients in the DDS system have had to submit only to an in-state criminal background check, which identifies only criminal arrests and convictions in Massachusetts, and does not identify any convictions a job applicant might have from another state. A national background check system will fill in that potential gap in the applicant’s history.
The new law’s fingerprint requirements, however, will be phased in through January 2019 for current employees, and will not take effect for new employees until January 2016. Another provision in the new law that raises questions appears to allow employees to be hired before the results of their background checks are obtained. That provision states the following:
Department-licensed, funded or approved programs and providers of transportation services on behalf of any department-licensed, funded or approved program may hire individuals without first obtaining the results of a state and national fingerprint-based criminal history check (my emphasis).
It’s not entirely clear to us what the intent of this provision is or what its impact might be. It appears to allow people to be hired before they are cleared through the FBI database. The provision does not specify a time frame for obtaining the background check results after an individual is hired.
Does this provision mean that even after January 2019, someone could be hired by DDS or a provider and could work for weeks or possibly months with developmentally disabled people before their background results are obtained or before their backgrounds are even checked? Furthermore, does the provision allow for that leeway even for in-state background checks?
I contacted the staff of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee earlier this week to ask about that provision and the provisions phasing in the background check requirements until 2016 and 2019. It was apparently in the Judiciary Committee that these provisions were inserted. Interestingly, the Judiciary Committee staff person I talked to referred me to Philip Johnston Associates, a Beacon Hill lobbying firm, which was apparently involved in the final negotiations over the bill, apparently on behalf of DDS corporate providers.
On Tuesday, I spoke to a member of the Johnston Associates firm, who said she was unsure as well about the intent of the provision that appears to allow the hiring of individuals prior to checking their backgrounds, and that she would get back to me. I have not yet heard back from her. I also placed two calls on Monday and Tuesday to the state Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, which is in charge of administering the law. I have yet to get a return call from that department.
The Johnston Associates staff member said the providers and other advocates involved in negotiations over the background check legislation pushed for phasing in the fingerprint requirements due to concerns over the time needed to implement them. A member of the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers expressed a concern in a news article last week that the new fingerprint requirements could prove burdensome to smaller provider agencies.
It is not clear to us though that more than four years is really needed to phase in the national background check program for current employees in the DDS system, or that a year-and-a-half delay is needed before requiring new employees to be fingerprinted. We’re skeptical that that much time is needed, partly because we’ve witnessed a lack of urgency on the part of both the Legislature and the administration for the past several years in just getting this law passed. It seems possible that that lack of urgency is being carried over into implementing the law’s requirements.
National background check legislation had been proposed each year for up to a decade by then Representative Martin Walsh, now mayor of Boston, before it was finally enacted this year. Each year, the legislation would get stuck in either the Judiciary or House Ways and Means Committees, or both, and then would die at the end of the session. The administration did little during that time to lobby for passage of the measure. As a result, Massachusetts has been only one of a handful of states without a national background check program for people with developmental disabilities.
Meanwhile, the federal government has stood ready to assist the state with grant money under the Affordable Care Act to help implement the new background check law; but Massachusetts has declined to apply for that federal money, which has available since 2010. The state has even been slow to implement national background checks for school teachers and children’s day care providers.
While we’re glad to see that the DDS national background check bill is finally law, we hope the administration now shows a true commitment and sense of urgency in getting it to work.