Despite a myriad of regulations designed to protect some of New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents, the state’s system is never foolproof.
Now, two top Democrats have pledged to address one worrisome weakness revealed in a recent government audit, which found lapses in the protocol and oversight for the criminal background checks required of frontline workers at community residences for individuals with disabilities.
New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) a longtime advocate for the disabled community, and Assembly Human Services Committee Chair Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) announced Friday they would introduce a joint measure to tighten the current system when lawmakers return to Trenton next month. The legislature is on break until after the upcoming elections, on Tuesday November 6.
Last week state auditor Stephen M. Eells, whose office is under the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, said that a review of five years of certain records revealed gaps in the current system that had enabled more than two-dozen individuals with potentially disqualifying criminal histories to get jobs as caregivers for disabled residents at state-licensed facilities — including one who was a paroled murderer. More than 100 other workers appeared to have never been checked at all.
Residential programs in New Jersey are required to conduct criminal background checks on individuals applying for jobs that involve direct care; while these providers have some discretion over who they do hire, violent crimes, child endangerment, and drug offenses can be disqualifying.
“This report confirms some of our worst fears and underscores the need to do more to protect our most vulnerable residents,” Vainieri Huttle said. “We need to ensure that there are no ambiguities in the law. Anyone entrusted with the day-to-day care and well-being of individuals who often can’t speak or fend for themselves should be vetted to the fullest.”
Among other things, the auditor recommended the Department of Human Services, which licenses and regulates community programs and facilities that serve citizens with disabilities, should have more control over the background-check process and final hiring decisions. Sweeney agreed this issue was ripe for reform.
“There should be no confusion and no exceptions when it comes to entrusting people with the responsibility to care for this vulnerable population,” Sweeney said, noting his pending bill “will be unequivocal in vesting the responsibility” for conducting background checks with DHS.
“Every potential worker should get a background check and anyone identified as a safety threat should be removed or disqualified,” he added.
Sweeney and Vainieri Huttle agreed that a new measure they sponsored, Stephen Komninos’ Law, will also help improve DHS oversight — something department officials echoed in their response to Eells’ audit. The measure, which will take effect in January, calls for state officials to make unannounced visits to programs for disabled individuals, permits employee drug tests, and forces providers to notify family members within two hours if a resident is harmed.
The audit from Eells and his team, which covered a period from July 2012 through April 2017, was designed to determine if DHS was properly licensing and monitoring the residential sites for disabled individuals that are under its purview. Auditors reviewed state law and regulation, department policy, interviewed DHS staff, and reviewed the records at a dozen residential programs.
The review focused on two DHS units: the Division of Developmental Disabilities, which contracts with some 570 agencies that operate group homes or other community residences that house or otherwise serve some 8,000 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the Office of Licensing, which licenses, regulates, and inspects nearly 2,300 programs that serve residents with developmental disabilities.
More than 4,000 potential red flags
Auditors found more than 4,000 potential employees in the state database of applicants’ fingerprints that had federal criminal histories that raised red flags and at least 28 individuals who worked in state licensed facilities despite these concerns.
Two of these workers — including a paroled murderer — were still there last spring. While employers can chose to hire former criminals if they can show they have reformed their behavior, it was not clear from the records if all these workers had been properly cleared.
“Allowing the provider to make criminal history determinations stands in contrast to the manner in which criminal background checks are handled by other state departments,” Eells wrote, noting other agencies handle these decisions themselves, instead of deferring to the contractor.
“Giving the Department of Human Services more control over who providers may hire could prevent the hiring of employees with disqualifying criminal records and promote the safety of those receiving services,” he said, something Sweeney said he supports.
The auditors also found the state needs to do a better job to ensure direct-service workers actually receive this background check. They reviewed records for more than 2,300 workers and found 175 who had been hired without any such review, 136 of whom were still employed at the end of 2016.
In addition, auditors found more than 1,000 workers who had been checked at one job, but not reviewed by another employer; it is common for individuals to work for multiple providers.
In addition, the report revealed that hundreds of providers who care for individuals in a private home lacked proper criminal review. The state also appeared to have inconsistent licensing procedures for some independent living programs.
Auditors also visited 83 licensed programs, some with dozens of documented administrative and other deficiencies, and found dozens with problems — broken tile, dangerous rugs, and other things that were not getting fixed in a timely manner. While the state has improved its record of timely inspections significantly in recent years, some facilities are still not being checked on schedule, auditors found.
In a written response to the audit, DHS acting director Elizabeth Connolly said the department would seek to improve collaboration among units to try and better meet all background check requirements. She also noted that Komninos’ Law would give them additional tools, like opportunities for random drug tests, to monitor the workforce.