Many felons work as state care­givers

The in-home aide pro­gram can’t bar most crim­i­nals from em­ploy­ment due to a re­cent court rul­ing.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Evan Halper re­port­ing from sacra­mento

Scores of peo­ple con­victed of crimes such as rape, elder abuse and as­sault with a deadly weapon are per­mit­ted to care for some of Cal­i­for­nia’s most vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents as part of the govern­ment’s home health aide pro­gram.

Data pro­vided by state of­fi­cials show that at least 210 work­ers and ap­pli­cants flagged by in­ves­ti­ga­tors as un­suit­able to work in the pro­gram will nonethe­less be al­lowed to keep their jobs or be­gin em­ploy­ment.

State and county in­ves­ti­ga­tors have not re­ported many whose back­grounds in­clude vi­o­lent crimes be­cause the rules of the pro­gram, as in­ter­preted by a judge ear­lier this year, per­mit felons to work as home care aides. Thou­sands of cur­rent work­ers have had no back­ground checks.

Only a his­tory of spe­cific types of child abuse, elder abuse or de­fraud­ing of pub­lic as­sis­tance pro­grams can dis­qual­ify a per­son un­der the court rul­ing.

But not all per­pe­tra­tors of even those crimes can be blocked.

In ad­di­tion, pri­vacy laws pre­vent in­ves­ti­ga­tors from cau­tion­ing the pro­gram’s el­derly, in­firm and dis­abled clients that they may end up in the care of some­one who has com­mit­ted vi­o­lent or fi­nan­cial crimes.

“We are al­low­ing these peo­ple into the homes of vul­ner­a­ble in­di­vid­u­als with­out su­per­vi­sion,” said John Wag­ner, di­rec­tor of the state Depart­ment of So­cial Ser­vices. “It is dan­ger­ous…. These are se­ri­ous con­vic­tions.”

Alarmed ad­min­is­tra­tors and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials have warned law­mak­ers, who have the power to change the pro­gram’s rules, that the sys­tem may be invit­ing preda­tors to ex­ploit pro­gram en­rollees. But ef­forts to ad­dress the prob­lem have stalled in the Leg­is­la­ture.

Law­mak­ers with ties to unions rep­re­sent­ing home care work­ers are wary of mak­ing more changes to a pro­gram they have cut deeply un­der pres­sure from Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger. Rel­a­tively new re­stric­tions on who can work in the pro-

gram or re­ceive its ben­e­fits, also im­ple­mented at the gover­nor’s urg­ing, have al­ready cre­ated un­nec­es­sary ob­sta­cles, law­mak­ers and ac­tivists say.

State and county in­ves­ti­ga­tors have iden­ti­fied 996 con­victed felons work­ing or seek­ing jobs in the pro­gram since back­ground checks were launched last year; 786 of them were re­moved or de­clared in­el­i­gi­ble, ac­cord­ing to the state Depart­ment of So­cial Ser­vices.

The rest are ex­pected to be em­ployed in the pro­gram de­spite the in­ves­ti­ga­tors’ con­cerns. Among them is a woman con­victed of false im­pris­on­ment, as­sault with a deadly weapon, forg­ing drug pre­scrip­tions and sell­ing drugs who con­tin­ues to work as a care­giver, ac­cord­ing to state of­fi­cials. An­other per­son was con­victed of wel­fare fraud, will­fully threat­en­ing bod­ily harm, drug pos­ses­sion and two counts of bur­glary. Sev­eral oth­ers were con­victed of elder abuse.

Ad­vo­cates and unions note that nearly half of the 400,000 em­ploy­ees of the In Home Sup­port­ive Ser­vices pro­gram, which is in­tended to pro­vide the state a cost-ef­fi­cient al­ter­na­tive to nurs­ing homes for low-in­come peo­ple who need cer­tain kinds of help, are car­ing for their own relatives.

“We don’t want to put any­body at risk of abuse or theft, but some­times your op­tions of who you can get to work for you are very nar­row,” said John Wilkins, a re­cip­i­ent of the ser­vices and co-chair­man of a coali­tion of ad­vo­cacy groups and unions.

Fur­ther, he said, “I’ve had two providers work for me who had crim­i­nal his­to­ries who were two of the best providers I have had. There is a lot of gray area. It is just not black and white.”

A spokesman for the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union, which rep­re­sents most of the state’s home health­care work­ers, re­ferred ques­tions to Wilkins. SEIU is con­sis­tently one of the biggest donors to the Democrats who dom­i­nate the Leg­is­la­ture, con­tribut­ing mil­lions of dol­lars to po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tees that the state Demo­cratic Party and its lead­ers use to win leg­isla­tive seats, reg­is­ter vot­ers and even fund law­maker re­treats.

Mem­bers’ wages from the home aide pro­gram pro­vide mil­lions of dol­lars in dues rev­enue that the union can use to fund such op­er­a­tions.

At a re­cent meet­ing of an ad­vi­sory panel made up of ad­min­is­tra­tors, in­ves­ti­ga­tors, care­givers and oth­ers, one county of­fi­cial raised the case of a man work­ing in the pro­gram who had been con­victed of rap­ing a 3-year old, said Laura West, a Sacra­mento County pros­e­cu­tor who was at the meet­ing.

“Can you do this job if you burned down some­one’s house? Yes. Mur­dered some­one? Yes. Raped a 3year-old child? Yes,” West said.

West said she is pros­e­cut­ing three care­givers for fraud against the sys­tem. One has been con­victed of armed rob­bery and as­sault with a deadly weapon; an­other com­mit­ted iden­tity theft; the third was a drug dealer.

“These are all good in­di­ca­tors that the per­son steals,” she said. “Yet they were able to work in the pro­gram and went on to steal from it.”

In Los An­ge­les County, in­ves­ti­ga­tors are frus­trated af­ter com­ing across nu­mer­ous cases of con­victed wel­fare cheats work­ing in the pro­gram who, un­der cur­rent rules, can­not be re­moved.

“It is so un­fair that we can’t even tell the [IHSS] con­sumer about this,” said Philip Brown­ing, di­rec­tor of the Los An­ge­les County Depart­ment of Pub­lic So­cial Ser­vices. “We have our hands tied. We asked our lawyers if we could share this in­for­ma­tion. They said, ‘Ab­so­lutely not,’ ” due to pri­vacy re­stric­tions.

The strict lim­its on who can be barred from the pro­gram stem from a law­suit that ad­vo­cates won in March in Alameda County Su­pe­rior Court. They sued af­ter the Sch­warzeneg­ger ad­min­is­tra­tion launched an ef­fort to purge all con­victed felons from em­ploy­ment in the pro­gram. Ex­actly who could be barred had been un­clear un­til the court rul­ing; the re­stric­tions had been lobbed into leg­is­la­tion drafted hastily as part of a late bud­get deal.

The court sided with the ad­vo­cates, who rep­re­sented mostly work­ers car­ing for relatives or friends. They ar­gued that the leg­is­la­tion limited those who could be ex­pelled to a nar­row group of of­fend­ers, so peo­ple in need would not lose a trusted provider who had com­mit­ted an of­fense such as theft or drunk driv­ing.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say they are push­ing to root out only the most dan­ger­ous felons, and they com­plain that the ef­fort has met a chilly re­cep­tion in the Leg­is­la­ture. Union mem­bers have ar­gued at leg­isla­tive hear­ings that more re­stric­tions would cause peo­ple like the plain­tiffs in the Alameda County case to lose their jobs and force their fam­ily mem­bers into in­sti­tu­tions.

The bat­tle is part of a larger dis­pute over the re­cently im­ple­mented an­tifraud mea­sures that Sch­warzeneg­ger cham­pi­oned. Ad­vo­cates say the rules, which in ad­di­tion to back­ground checks for em­ploy­ees in­volve finger­print­ing of care re­cip­i­ents and spot checks by in­ves­ti­ga­tors, are in­va­sive and don’t root out fraud be­cause lit­tle is be­ing com­mit­ted.

As­sem­bly­woman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) said law­mak­ers would con­sider a rea­son­able pro­posal to block po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous peo­ple from the pro­gram if that were all the ad­min­is­tra­tion was seek­ing.

But she said the ad­min­is­tra­tion also wants to save money by slash­ing the aides’ wages and cut­ting 200,000 re­cip­i­ents from the pro­gram and has even pro­posed elim­i­nat­ing the ser­vices al­to­gether.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion is in­ter­ested in noth­ing less than de­stroy­ing IHSS,” said Evans, who has chaired over­sight hear­ings on the pro­gram.

Se­nate Bud­get Com­mit­tee Chair­woman Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego) said the bud­get dis­cus­sions in which the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posed re­stric­tions have been raised are not an ap­pro­pri­ate venue.

“They need to draft a bill, get an author and bring it up in the pub­lic safety and hu­man ser­vices com­mit­tees,” she said.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials cited many meet­ings they have had with law­mak­ers and their staffs in which they said they raised the is­sue of crim­i­nals work­ing in the pro­gram.

Mean­while, Eileen Car­roll, deputy di­rec­tor of adult pro­grams for the state Depart­ment of So­cial Ser­vices, says she fields calls from puz­zled county in­ves­ti­ga­tors who are seek­ing to keep po­ten­tial preda­tors out of the pro­gram.

“We tell them they have to ap­prove some­one who has a murder con­vic­tion,” she said. “We tell them they have to ap­prove the rapist. They call the state and ask for our help, and all we can tell them is: If it is be­yond the [cour­tap­proved] list, you can­not deny them. “ evan.halper@latimes.com

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