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New federal authorizations to child care created backlog of background checks for day care providers

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Megan McDonald of Jamestown has two children in day care and another baby on the way. She said young children often don't have the voice to speak up about something that could be going wrong at a day care, and knowing a provide...

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Megan McDonald of Jamestown has two children in day care and another baby on the way.

She said young children often don’t have the voice to speak up about something that could be going wrong at a day care, and knowing a provider has passed a criminal background check gives her security as a parent to know her kids are in good hands.

“I really think that they (day care providers) shouldn’t be allowed to be licensed without it (a background check),” she said.

But before recent years, providers didn’t have to pass a fingerprinting background check before being licensed to operate a day care center.

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New mandate

In 2009 the North Dakota Legislature approved Senate Bill 2162, which requires potential day care providers to pass a fingerprinting background check prior to receiving licensure.

But the law was only subject to potential new providers, meaning providers who’d previously been offering day care services were grandfathered in.

This changed in November 2014, when the federal government reauthorized the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act. The reauthorization included a change stipulating that current day care providers must pass a fingerprinting background check to maintain licensure.

The new mandate created a flood of background checks for the North Dakota Department of Human Services to process.

As of March 1, the department had 1,053 background checks awaiting processing, according to Tara Reed, supervisor of the Criminal Background Check Unit at the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

In addition to the backlog, the department receives 45 new applications daily, said Becky Eberhardt, Early Childhood Services administrator for the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

Currently there are 1,589 licensed child care providers in North Dakota, including center-based child care, preschool child care, school aged child care services, family child care centers and group child care centers, said LuWanna Lawrence, public information officer for the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

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Until applications are processed, approximately 950 day care providers in North Dakota are providing care and haven’t completed a background check, Reed said. The department’s data isn’t specific to any county, according to Reed, who was therefore unable to provide information specific to Stutsman County.

Licensing process

The agency has until September 2017 to process the backlogged background checks, or it could face a fiscal penalty, Lawrence said.

“The penalty would vary depending on the amount the state receives in (federal) grant funding each year,” she said.

Applicants can go to a Regional Human Service Center or have law enforcement personnel or other trained officials from the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation conduct the fingerprinting submission. After the applicant has finished the fingerprinting process, officials put the submission in a sealed envelope to prevent tampering. Applicants then take the sealed envelope to the corresponding licensing agency who then sends the submission to the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

When the department receives a background check from a licensing county, first employees review the application for accuracy and completion. It’s common a background check be returned to the applicant two, three or even four times, Reed said.

Several North Dakota public history websites are reviewed, including the North Dakota Sex Offender Registry, North Dakota Child Abuse/Neglect Index, and others, Reed said.

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DHS employees also request records from BCI. Results from BCI can take up to two and a half weeks to come back, Reed said.

If the applicant has lived in a state other than North Dakota in the past five years, a request to the state(s) child abuse/neglect registry is also made.

If applications are approved, they are sent to the corresponding county licenser who will then provide the applicant with the official license.

It takes about three months to process one background check, if the paperwork is correctly submitted, Eberhardt said.

“When the safety of children is at stake, incomplete information cannot be passed over and every detail must be scrutinized, it is not a process that can be rushed through or expedited,” said Marlys Baker, who oversees the department’s Criminal Background Check Unit and is the North Dakota Department of Human Services child protection services administrator.

Eberhardt said when the new mandates were issued there was a lack of resources at the state department, including personnel.

Shari Doe, director of the Children and Family Services Division for the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said the Bismarck department requested more personnel to process the influx of background checks after the federal law was reauthorized, but the request wasn’t supported by the North Dakota Legislature.

“People in the background check unit are very conscious about their work, very concerned about getting the background checks out, so of course they feel the pressure of having these backed up like they are,” she said.
The North Dakota Department of Human Services has three full-time employees and one part-time employee processing background checks daily, Eberhardt said.

Roadblocks

The federal law requires background checks to be reviewed for every state in which potential providers have lived.

Some states, such as South Dakota, aren’t so easy to work with, because South Dakota state law doesn’t require human service employees hand over criminal background information about previous residents, Eberhardt said.

If a background check isn’t received from a separate state, that message is passed on to the licensing county, Eberhardt said. If all else comes back well, the missing criminal background check doesn’t disqualify a candidate from receiving licensure in North Dakota, Eberhardt said.

Another roadblock for providers looking to expand their day care center is a background check for possible employees.

Those who could have unsupervised access to children in a day care center -- such as an employee, husband or wife if the center is run out of a home -- must also be fingerprinted.

Until those background checks are approved, children must be supervised by only the main provider.

Crimes such as assault, kidnapping, stalking, criminal coercion and several others will disqualify a candidate from receiving licensure.

Reed said the North Dakota Department of Human Services doesn’t have a speculative date when the applications will be caught up.

Several day care providers in Jamestown declined to comment on this story.

Timing

Rep. Jessica Haak, D-Jamestown, said the backlog is unfortunate because it comes at a time where Stutsman County is currently facing a shortage of available day care centers, but believes the background check process is important.

“If It was my kids I would want to make sure they were licensed,” she said. “ … I think it’s piece of mind that parents would be looking for.”

According to data from Child Care Aware, a North Dakota Lutheran Social Services program, there are 2,509 potential children in Stutsman County needing child care. Currently, state-licensed child care programs in Stutsman County can take up to 944 children, according to data.

Haak is working with Stutsman County officials to create a survey to learn more about the needs for child care. The survey will be distributed to businesses in Jamestown, hopefully by May, Haak said.

According to Child Care Aware data, the biggest need for child care in Stutsman County is for children between the ages of zero to 23 months.

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