There was little debate about it six years ago when the Maine Legislature made it law that child care centers, residential care facilities and a host of other state-licensed facilities would conduct criminal background checks on many prospective hires.
Then, there was little debate last year when the Legislature updated the law to clarify that those facilities would conduct background checks “in accordance with applicable federal and state laws.”
The update was largely aimed at ensuring facilities followed state and federal laws concerning eligible certified nursing assistants and direct care workers at residential care facilities for the elderly, but it also applied to child care centers and their staff members who work directly with children. It passed the Legislature without objection, and it had the support of Gov. Paul LePage and his administration.
But now, LePage and his administration are flouting this state law when it comes to child care centers. Federal law concerning background checks for child care center employees has changed, and LePage is refusing to implement all of the new federally required provisions. In refusing to do so, LePage is not only violating a federal law. He’s violating the state law that directs him to obey the relevant federal statute.
When Congress reauthorized the federal Child Care and Development Fund block grant program in 2014, the background check requirement for child care centers grew to include a check of criminal records and sex offender registries in every state where an employee or prospective employee has lived in the past five years, a check of a handful of federal databases and a fingerprint check against FBI records.
The LePage administration is refusing to carry out the fingerprint provision, even though it says it will require every other component of the more comprehensive criminal background check by Sept. 30, 2017 — the date specified in federal law. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services says the administration’s refusal is related to the additional cost to child care centers and the potential for the fingerprint check to violate an employee’s civil liberties.
But the additional cost of fingerprinting is likely to be minimal, especially considering that children’s safety is the objective. The FBI charges $18 to conduct a fingerprint check, and law enforcement agencies across the state have said they’re willing to help child care centers implement this requirement at little or no cost. A fingerprint check, after all, can pick up on criminal convictions a name-only check might not, such as offenses committed under different names or in states where a prospective employee hasn’t indicated he or she previously lived.
Don’t Maine’s youngest children deserve this extra layer of assurance? Don’t parents deserve the peace of mind that comes with knowing the child care center where their children are spending their days has done everything it can to vet its employees?
It’s deeply troubling that LePage won’t stand up for the state’s youngest residents.
What’s also deeply troubling is that LePage apparently sees fit to choose portions of federal law to follow and others to ignore. This choice has consequences: The law directs the federal government to withhold 5 percent of a state’s Child Care and Development Fund block grant for noncompliance. Based on Maine’s $17.3 million grant this year, that could work out to an $864,000 loss in the next federal fiscal year. That’s $864,000 that low-income families are depending on to help them pay for the cost of child care. Some 4,324 children received child care with the help of the block grant in 2015.
What’s further troubling is that there’s a state law directing the LePage administration to respect federal requirements, and he and his administration still see fit to flout it.
So, what are Maine lawmakers who have repeatedly affirmed background check requirements for child care centers to do? A bill explicitly requiring the LePage administration to comply with the fingerprinting provisions of federal law is making its way through the Legislature.
Lawmakers shouldn’t need this bill, but a governor with no respect for state and federal laws — and apparently little regard for the safety of the state’s youngest residents — leaves them little choice.