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Mila Koumpilova, Published December 28 2008

Are your children in good hands?

Who’s watching our children?

It’s a question area parents asked themselves this year after several Fargo-Moorhead child care centers abruptly shut down.

Turns out most of the closures were tied to bad business practices or decisions.

But the spotlight these closures cast on child care providers soon illuminated a much more troubling issue for anyone concerned about the safety of North Dakota children: While the state closely monitors the safety of toys, furniture and equipment in licensed child cares, it doesn’t scrutinize the backgrounds of the people who run or work at them.

Didn’t know that?

You’re not alone: Even North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven – the state’s top executive – didn’t know until this fall, when news of the closures was made public.

He’s since endorsed legislation that would ratchet up the level of oversight. The introduction of mandatory background checks – in place in Minnesota for more than a decade – is among child care reforms sure to be a hot topic during the upcoming legislative session beginning in January.

In the meantime, The Forum set out to take a closer look at who’s watching our children.

After months of investigating, we now know this: There are day care providers with criminal backgrounds – in some cases felonies – who either run or work at local day cares.

What we still don’t know is just how many convicted criminals are providing day care and just how many parents are in the dark about it.

Here’s a glimpse into why so little is known – by us, by you and by the people giving out the licenses – about who’s watching your children:

What we found

The journey for answers began earlier this fall when The Forum asked Cass County Social Services for copies of the most recent licensing applications for the 800 or so licensed child care centers and in-home day cares in the county.

A newsroom team then sifted through thousands of names of owners, caregivers and in-home day care household residents.

We checked the names against the North Dakota and Minnesota court databases – casting a considerably narrower net than an FBI criminal background check would.

The majority had no apparent run-ins with the law, but more than 200 names popped up in the databases. But at that point our search hit a hurdle.

By law, Social Services had to redact a lot of personal information on the applications that would have helped verify beyond doubt the matches between the applications and the court databases.

It was a bit easier with in-home day care owners because we had their addresses.

For example, we found a provider with three felony convictions – for theft, forgery and defrauding Cass County Social Services of public assistance benefits.

We also found one who appears to have committed theft and wrongfully obtained assistance convictions, and one with four DUIs in six years.

There were several providers with multiple small claims or collection judgments against them.

But as to their employees, it was difficult to establish definite matches without middle names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and addresses.

And those are exactly the obstacles awaiting proactive parents who might want to do their own homework.

Then again, most parents assume the state does that homework for them, says Linda Lembke, of the nonprofit Childcare Resource and Referral clearinghouse.

“I think parents put a lot of faith in the licensing system and assume there’s a lot of checking done of the people who work there, which isn’t always the case,” says Lembke, part of a vocal local lobby pushing for a statewide child care quality rating system and grants for providers.

In fact, a North Dakota license – required for all centers and home-based day cares catering to more than five children – simply means the facility, its equipment and toys are safe for children.

Licensers also make sure the staff has first-aid training and tuberculosis tests. They check would-be providers and their employees against North Dakota sex offender and child abuse and neglect databases. But when it comes to other offenses, the state relies on the honesty of license-seekers.

The system now

On North Dakota’s child care licensing application and a supporting background form, would-be providers and their employees sign a statement saying they’ve never been convicted of a felony.

Because the state doesn’t require licensing specialists to check, Cass County Social Services licenser Dede Wienckowski says, “When people sign that, I have to take them at their word.”

County licensing specialists process applications and inspect the facilities; the state issues the licenses.

The Forum’s investigation found providers who were not altogether forthcoming, though they face little punishment for withholding information about offenses on a child care application.

If the applicant is caught lying, Social Services issues a correction order, just as it would if the person had, say, a missing outlet cover. The child care provider would have time to remove the employee or household resident, or else show they merit a second chance.

Besides mandatory background checks, licensing specialists such as Cass County’s Ruby Kolpack say they also want more straightforward guidelines on exactly who merits a second chance.

The state’s rules and regulations list a slew of serious offenses – from homicide to kidnapping to robbery – that rule out a job in child care. Offenders can get permission to run or work at a child care despite other felonies and misdemeanors if they show they’re rehabilitated, which, the rules say, generally means staying out of trouble for five years after completing a jail sentence, probation or parole.

But, explains Tara Muhlhauser, deputy director of the Children and Family Services Division at the Department of Human Services, would-be providers and workers can apply for a waiver earlier, and her office has to consider input from parole and probation officers, therapists, drug or alcohol addiction treatment providers and Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors.

In Minnesota, many criminal offenses also don’t automatically disqualify someone from working in day care, though offenders generally need to wait much longer. (Felony theft and forgery, for instance, are 15-year disqualifiers in Minnesota.)

But unlike in North Dakota, Minnesota providers need to let parents know if they, their workers or anyone living in their household has a conviction.

Clay County licenser Kathleen Cardinal says roughly one in 20 people whose background she checks is disqualified because of a criminal offense.

Said Cardinal, “Based on the work we do and what we find when we do the background checks, I would think it’s a good idea for North Dakota to have them, too.”

No one knew

Don Canton, a spokesman for Gov. Hoeven, said the governor’s team only learned this fall that the state doesn’t mandate background checks for child care workers. That’s when area media covered convicted felon James Krause’s bid to start a West Fargo child care center.

Krause, who eventually withdrew his application in Cass County, had worked for years at his live-in partner’s in-home daycare, starting the year after his first felony theft conviction.

“We weren’t aware there weren’t background checks until it was made public,” said Canton. “It was obviously an oversight.”

Rep. Philip Mueller, D-Valley City, an advocate for child care reform, says mandatory child care checks haven’t come up in his decade in the state Legislature, which would need to approve them.

“We probably haven’t had a big crying need for that because everybody’s been getting along,” he said. “Unfortunately, legislation is often reactive rather than proactive, and that might be more true in our state.”

Background-check legislation for certain workers does exist, but it doesn’t include child care workers. Muhlhauser, whose office oversees county licensers, says until recently the Department of Human Services felt the county oversight of child care workers and the state’s voluntary background system for providers, the CareCheck Registry, were enough: “Mandatory checks are something we’ve been talking about in the past year.”

This fall, Hoeven, in collaboration with the attorney general’s office, included the mandatory checks in a proposal the Legislature will consider this upcoming session.

He has earmarked $1.2 million in the state budget for fingerprint-based FBI background checks on child care workers.

Canton said he feels confident the Legislature will act on the background checks proposal: “I think we all have a responsibility to make sure we have the best, most secure child care system.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529 or mkoumpilova@forumcomm.com