ATLANTA (AP) — A major change to rules governing child care centers across the state is likely to receive final approval soon as lawmakers, state officials and advocacy groups hail the move as an improvement to children's safety.
Legislation passed by the General Assembly in recent weeks calls for every employee of the state's roughly 6,300 licensed child care facilities to undergo a comprehensive, fingerprint-based background check. The bill, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, is aimed at preventing those with a prior felony conviction from working around children.
"This is a public safety issue," said Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who sponsored the bill. "I have a granddaughter in a day care center. I sure want to know that when she is dropped off at that day care center, that there is not someone there with some type of felony on their record from another state."
Peake said he was motivated to act, in part, after state investigators last year found that a preschool in Macon had been taken over by a convicted felon still on probation in Florida. A basic name check, currently the only requirement for child care center employees, is limited to searching criminal records in Georgia.
"Here are children, who in some cases can't verbalize whether they have been abused or not," Peake said. "We need to go to every length possible to ensure that those who are taking care of these children are safe and competent individuals."
Current law requires only the director of a child care facility to undergo and pass the more comprehensive fingerprint background check. Under the new legislation, all employees would have to submit to a fingerprint check before being eligible to work at a licensed child care facility in the state.
Bobby Cagle, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, said he realized soon after taking the job a few years ago that a major gap existed in the lack of a more comprehensive background check for child care employees. Cagle worked with Peake and industry groups to develop the legislation. Cagle said the current system poses several problems.
"We really don't know for certain that the person standing in front of you is the person they say they are, especially people with criminal backgrounds," Cagle said.
He said the legislation gives child care centers time to come into compliance. By Jan. 1, 2014, all new facilities seeking a license to operate in the state would need to provide the department with two sets of fingerprints for each employee to be run through various federal and state criminal databases. In addition, any new employee of a facility already licensed would have to submit to the fingerprint check.
If the bill becomes law, all employees at child care facilities will have been screened through the fingerprint check by Jan. 1, 2017, and any facility not in compliance could have its license revoked under the law.
Those with felony convictions would be ineligible to work, although there is an appeals process for those who committed crimes long ago that did not involve children.
The bill also sets a requirement for all employees to be checked every five years, and allows the state to require a fingerprint check if there is reason to believe an employee has a recent conviction. The department also can compel a check during the course of a child-abuse investigation involving an employee.
There is a cost increase associated with changing to the fingerprint check for all employees. The current employee background check costs about $15, and the fingerprint check is roughly $52. The law does not say who should bear the costs, with that likely varying by child care facility.
Peake said he is a small-business owner mindful of adding a financial burden for centers, but felt it was necessary.
"This is making sure we protect young children in our licensed day care centers. And that additional cost, I believe, is a very small burden when compared to the safety of our children," he said.
In addition, the Department of Early Care and Learning expects it will need to add an employee to help process the checks. Cagle said that funding will be found within the department.
Georgia stands to join more than two dozen other states with similar laws. The fact that Georgia did not have the same requirements of surrounding states was a cause for concern and helped prompt action on the bill.
"We didn't want Georgia to become that doughnut hole in the center, where people were deciding to come to Georgia to work because they had that criminal background," said Carolyn Salvador, executive director of the Georgia Child Care Association, who worked with lawmakers and state officials to provide input on the bill.
A key concern for Salvador's group was what to do when staffing is critical and new employees need to start right away. The law creates a process for new hires to start pending the outcome of the fingerprint check when a facility's staff-to-child ratios would fall below state requirements, which vary by age group. State officials plan to start working soon on the regulations governing that process.