Parents of children enrolled in Georgia’s child care facilities might have a few assumptions about the people caring for their kids.
They might think all childcare employees have been screened for felonies committed in other states and checked against registries of sex offenders and child abusers.
Those expectations would be wrong.
Regardless of whether a child care center is licensed, “you don’t know who is taking care of your children,” said 26-year-old Gwinnett County mother Le’Vaughn Johnson.
State legislators are considering two bills that aim to fill what many say are gaping holes in Georgia’s child safety laws. One is a facet of a broader push by the state’s Department of Early Care and Learning, or DECAL, to strengthen protections for children. The other is part of a crusade by Johnson, whose son died in daycare.
Today, only the operators of child care facilities, not individual employees, are subject to FBI fingerprint screening that would turn up offenses in other states, including sex crimes or crimes committed under an alias. Employees are subject only to a name-based check that would largely pick up crimes committed in Georgia.
House Bill 350, sponsored by Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon and backed by DECAL, would require all employees of Georgia’s roughly 6,000 child care facilities to undergo fingerprint-based background checks.
HB 46, introduced by Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain at Johnson’s urging, would make it mandatory for employees to be checked against a state database of investigations of child abuse and neglect.
It faces a tough road to passage, however. Under due-process requirements spelled out by the Georgia Supreme Court, the state’s use of the database as a screening tool is limited to foster parents. The court found the registry was unconstitutional because people couldn’t challenge being listed in it; the state later created a mechanism for foster parents to do so.
“I think (Mitchell’s bill) is good legislation in protecting children,” said Normer Adams, who has long worked in the child protection field. “But the law needs to be written to comply with what the Georgia Supreme Court guidelines said it needs to have. It needs to have due process.”
DECAL commissioner Bobby Cagle, who joined the agency in 2011 after serving as the director of legislative and external affairs for the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, said passing the fingerprint legislation is the first step. As for the bill to require screening through the child abuse registry, he said the state must first address the constitutional issue.
“We can get information that says a person has been substantiated for neglecting their child,” he noted, adding that the problem comes in using that information to deny employment.
Only 11 states require comprehensive background checks of child care center operators and workers, which entails state and federal fingerprint checks, criminal history report, sex offender registry screening and a check of the state’s child abuse and neglect registry.
Thirty-three states require workers to pass a federal fingerprint screening, and 45 require employees to be screened for reports of child abuse and neglect using state-maintained databases.
Johnson believes passionately that Georgia should be among them.
She found A Touch of Love in 2008 on DECAL’s Bright from the Start website, she said. That gave her confidence in choosing the facility for her infant son, Qualé.
It was just Qualé’s second day at the center when she received a frantic call asking her to come to the center. By the time she arrived, police and emergency officials had roped off the building with yellow crime scene tape.
Qualé’s death was initially ruled Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, but Johnson couldn’t accept that, and she began asking questions. She got a maltreatment expert with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to re-examine the case. In addition to SIDS, the expert found that possible causes of death included accidental or intentional asphyxiation. Her findings led the cause to be reclassified as “undetermined.”
From DECAL’s investigation report, Johnson learned that the facility director, Angela Miller, had left the children under the watch of her husband, who was not properly trained. The couple later gave conflicting statements to police about when Miller left the home and when Qualé was discovered not breathing.
Miller also failed to notify DECAL of the death as required by law.
Attempts to reach Miller for this article were unsuccessful. A woman who answered a phone registered to Miller told the reporter it was the wrong number.
No one was charged in the death of Johnson’s son. Miller closed her facility in December 2008 and has not operated a child care business since, according to state records.
For Johnson, the experience altered the course of her life.
A nursing student at the time of her son’s death, she enrolled in the University of Michigan to study social work. She has had another child and is now completing a master’s degree in social work from Michigan State University.
“I don’t feel comfortable with my two-year-old in Georgia daycares right now,” said Johnson, who lives in Snellville when not in Michigan. “I am pushing this along so that I can come back and live with my son.”
“You go to a daycare and you automatically assume criminal background checks, but the problem is, child abuse is not a crime. Very rarely is it a crime, so it’s not on your record,” she said.
Grace Reef, chief of policy and evaluation with Child Care Aware of America, said Georgia should be able to resolve the constitutional issue.
“Forty-five states have already figured this out,” she said.