By Douglas Moser
---- — New legislation soon to be filed would increase criminal background and sex offender search requirements for those operating licensed early education child care centers in Massachusetts.
The bill, written by state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, tightens the background check requirements, increases state oversight and introduces fines and license suspensions for facilities that fail to perform checks and correct violations. It comes in the wake of a state auditor’s report that found lax oversight by the state Department of Early Education and Care over the thousands of licensed child care facilities in Massachusetts.
According to Early Education and Care Department records, there are more than 2,000 centers in the Lowell area and Essex County alone.
O’Connor Ives sent a letter to Thomas Weber, acting commissioner of the Department of Early Education and Care, last week asking for a meeting to discuss state Auditor Suzanne Bump’s March 27 report, which among other things found spotty criminal background checks on employees and few corrections to health and safety inspection violations on the part of license holders, and little inspection followup, few unannounced inspections and no checking license addresses against the sex offender registry on the part of EEC.
“One critical aspect is the need for CORI checks on all staff and household members, not just those likely to have unsupervised contact with children,” O’Connor Ives said. “If violations are found, there needs to be immediate corrective action from the facility, with followup from the EEC. And if it’s not corrected, then their licenses to operate should be taken away.”
O’Connor Ives said Weber’s office responded and scheduled a meeting for April 16.
Bump’s report indicated her office found 119 instances of sex offender addresses, listed either as work or residence addresses, matching the address of a licensed early education child care facility. After investigating those addresses further, the auditors found that all but four matched addresses meant either an offender worked in the same building, but not for the child care business, or no longer lived or worked at that address.
The four facilities where matches were verified, including one on French Street in Methuen, lost their licenses late last month, said Kathleen Hart, a spokeswoman for EEC.
“The results of the audit are alarming and unacceptable,” O’Connor Ives wrote in her April 1 letter to Weber. “They indicate a dereliction of duty on the part of EEC, an agency charged with protecting the safety of children in early education and care programs.”
The bill would write into law several of the recommendations in Bump’s report, particularly those that apply to criminal background and sex offender registry checks.
Specifically, the bill would require all child care facilities licensed through the EEC to perform Criminal Offender Record Information checks on all operators, household members older than 15, people regularly on the premises and any people living in an at-home child care center, and to report any changes in employment at the facility.
Facilities that do not conduct a background check would have their licenses suspended until the checks are completed.
It would require the EEC to perform a sex offender registry check on all new and renewal license applications. License holders who knowingly employ, operate with or have visits from a registered sex offender would have their licenses revoked and face possible fines and jail time.
Additionally, the bill would require the EEC to ensure facilities keep and update records such as emergency contacts, authorized pickup person or people, and immunizations.