Thousands of people with criminal pasts that include violent felonies and hurting children have been hired to work in Florida's child-care centers during the past two decades, a ( Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel investigation has found.
In October, a baby suffered severe burns at a Lauderhill day care while under the watch of a woman on felony probation who was working without a background check.
In Ocala, a young boy nearly died after being left in a sweltering van by a day-care employee whose lengthy theft record should have barred her from working at the center.
And in Lake County, an employee with a criminal record of beating her toddler son continued working at a day-care center for more than three years after she slipped through the state's screening process.
Florida law requires criminal-background checks for child-care employees — but allows them to begin work before screening is complete. Once the results are in, a process that can take months, people barred from working with children because of a criminal record can still qualify by obtaining an exemption finding that they have been rehabilitated.
The law, along with screening failures, has opened the door for rapists, pedophiles and even killers to work in child care, the Sun Sentinel found. And parents have no way of knowing whether felons are caring for their children.
"It's ridiculous to even think about it, and it's scary," said Karen Gievers, a Tallahassee lawyer and child advocate. "If you've got people involved in criminal acts with children, it's absolutely clear that information should be known before you put that person with children."
A statewide database of background screenings since 1985 shows at least 2,400 people already were employed in child care before checks turned up their criminal records. A Tampa man had this disturbing note in his screening record: "EVIL DUDE—RAPE+KIDNAP+SEX ASLT."
An additional 2,900 people with criminal pasts were cleared for day-care work through exemptions, although some had been found guilty of crimes including child abuse, kidnapping and murder.
"It's totally unacceptable. Obviously, this has become a huge loophole that needs to be closed," said state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, vice chairwoman of the Senate's Children, Families and Elder Affairs committee. "From what you've found, we've allowed people who have committed child abuse or molested kids to be among our children."
George Sheldon, head of the state's Department of Children and Families, said these troubling problems require reforms.
"We've got to do a much better job than what we're currently doing," he said. "We have a serious responsibility to protect kids."
Hire first, check laterFlorida's flawed background-screening system grew out of a child-care scandal in the 1980s.
Frank Fuster of Miami was convicted of sexually abusing more than a dozen children at a day care in his home and is serving life in prison. Fuster's record for manslaughter and child molestation came to light only after the scandal broke.
Before that, Florida had no consistent background checks. A law passed in 1985 bars people with certain criminal records from "positions of trust" such as jobs in day care unless they obtain an exemption.
Under the law, employees undergo a statewide and national FBI criminal-record check that must begin within 10 days after they start working.
It can take as little as 24 hours to get results if fingerprints are submitted electronically. But as of last year, more than half of those screened for day-care jobs in Florida had their fingerprints inked on cards and sent by mail, a process that takes six weeks or longer.
"All this time these people are working," said Sandy Pillar, who tracks screenings at DCF. "We've had people working in child care who were pedophiles."
The lag time in processing background screenings can vary from one region of the state to another. In Central Florida, until about a year ago, DCF had about a two-month backlog on screening applicants — on top of the typical 45-day average for the process. That meant felons were routinely on the job for months before anyone even noticed.
DCF spokeswoman Elizabeth Arenas said the regional office has since assigned more workers to the process and that the backlog is now eliminated — although requests for additional information still can drag out the time a felon is on the job.
A bill filed this year in the Legislature would have required electronic fingerprint submission for all child-care employees, but it failed.
Children in voluntary pre-kindergarten are better protected because employees are covered under a newer law and must pass a background check before working.
Florida has more than 50,000 day-care workers. About 4percent fail the background check and must be removed or apply for an exemption. Day-care operators are free to wait for the screening results on new hires, but many do not.
It took six weeks to unearth pending child-molestation charges in California against Keith Rodrigues, an employee at a South Florida skate park operated by the YMCA of the Palm Beaches.
At a child's birthday party near San Francisco, Rodrigues fondled a 12-year-old girl and was caught watching a 4-year-old boy shower, according to a police report.
While awaiting trial in 2003, Rodrigues was hired at the West Palm Beach skate park.
"Background check not pretty," someone scribbled in his screening file after he was already on the job.
The YMCA fired Rodrigues, and he is now a registered sex offender.
"These are things we know can happen all the time," said Mike Green, executive director of the YMCA. "If it takes [weeks] to get a report back from the FBI, that is a concern."
Screening problems commonIn Florida, parents can check inspection records to see how a day-care center rates in everything from safety hazards to food preparation — but they have no way of knowing the backgrounds of the employees who care for their children. Personnel records are not public.
State-inspection data show that omissions and errors in the employee screening process are rife. Day-care operators must check the backgrounds of new hires, and rescreen employees every five years or if they stop working for longer than 90 days.
Lack of proof that employee background checks have been made are among the most common violations at day-care centers throughout Florida, a Sun Sentinel analysis of inspection data during the past five years found.
Yet even when children are put in the care of serious offenders, day-care operators typically receive only a small fine.
On a summer day in 2005, staff at the Oakcrest Early Education Center in Ocala took a group of young children out for pizza.
When they returned, teacher's assistant Regina Brown and another employee failed to do a required head count of the children and left 3-year-old Nicholas Bradshaw in a van parked in the sun. When a maintenance worker found him nearly three hours later, the unconscious child was rushed to a hospital suffering from a collapsed lung and seizures.
Brown, the van driver, had been working at the day care for nearly two years, despite a felony criminal record that should have disqualified her. Oakcrest did a statewide background check on Brown but failed to act on her record, and DCF did not detect it during inspections, Arenas said.
Brown was charged with child neglect and sentenced to probation. Oakcrest had a history of not screening employees and closed that week.
Nicholas spent a week in a coma, said his grandfather, Joseph Napoli, who is raising him. Now 8, the boy suffers from memory loss and has a speech impediment.
His family learned of Brown's record, which included charges of theft and fraud, after her arrest. "I was pretty upset," Napoli said. "You start hearing about the poor screening they did and the poor caliber of training, which was zero, it makes you think: We trust the lives of our children to them, and these people shouldn't be around children."
With a starting pay of only about $8 an hour, the child-care industry sometimes attracts those with criminal pasts, day-care operators said. Turnover can be high, and filling vacancies quickly is critical to maintaining legally required staff-to-children ratios.
Last year, the Uncle Charles Learning Center in Lauderhill hired Shakeyda Kent without checking her background. She was on probation for two felony convictions of driving with a suspended license, had pleaded no contest to marijuana possession and was arrested but not prosecuted for grand theft, records show.
Kent was one of two employees supervising seven infants last October, when 8-month-old Robert Porter crawled away, pulled the cord of a bottle warmer and spilled scalding water on his head.
The day caredidn't screenKent until five days later. It was the center's fourth background-screening violation in six months.
The day care got a $500 fine. Little Robert Porter spent eight days in the hospital with burns to his face and head.
"It was painful, very painful," said his mother, Tia Porter, an employee at a Checkers restaurant. "He wouldn't eat for the eight days he was in the hospital, barely drank a milk bottle."
Porter has a pending lawsuit against Uncle Charles. The day care surrendered its license and closed April 30 following more violations.
The center's former owner, Tracye Wilkerson of Plantation, said she was "not interested in talking." Kent did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Exemptions, even for child abusePeople with disqualifying criminal records can never be a public-school teacher or even a bail bondsman in Florida. But they can still get jobs in child care.
Exemptions are possible for any misdemeanor, regardless of how recent, and felonies committed more than three years earlier. Crimes committed by those granted exemptions include aggravated assault, arson, sexual battery, aggravated child abuse, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and domestic violence.
A Brevard County woman won an exemption after a top state official turned her down and said he wouldn't want her caring for a friend's child.
In 2006, Juanita Isaiah was working at Demps Christian Childcare in Cocoa when her background check came back with a record for grand theft, battery and other charges. She also had a confirmed child-abuse report for using excessive corporal punishment on her 12-year-old sister.
The head of DCF in Orlando denied Isaiah's exemption request, noting that the battery charge, involving a fight with another woman, "was especially brutal, including biting," according to a March 2007 e-mail. He also wrote that he was concerned about the abuse report and, based on what he knew, would not recommend that a friend send a child to a day care where Isaiah worked.
Isaiah appealed the decision, with an administrative judge concluding that she "poses no danger to the children in her care." She got an exemption in January 2008.
Seven months later, Isaiah was charged with trafficking in pain pills. Prosecutors later dropped the charge based on insufficient proof the pills belonged to Isaiah. Her boyfriend at the time was also charged and is awaiting trial on multiple counts of trafficking in cocaine and Ecstasy.
Earlier this year, Isaiah made inquiries to Brevard County Environmental Health Services on how to go about opening a family day-care business in her home.
In Brevard, unlike most of Central Florida, the county's Environmental Health Services department handles the licensing of day-care businesses, while DCF handles the background screenings. DCF officials admit the fractured responsibilities are a problem.
"We've recognized that we have siloed communication in house — where one office doesn't know what another office does," said DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner. "We need to have a system in place where we can catch those things."
Some child advocates say loopholes in the system are dangerous and must be eliminated.
"Common sense says there is no substitute for putting children in anything but a safe environment," said Linda Alexionok, executive director of the Children's Campaign, a child-advocacy group in Tallahassee. "No parent should ever, ever have to be worried about that."
Kate Santich of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report. She can be reached at 407-420-5503 or email@example.com.
Check your day-care center Search our online databases to find inspection violations and see who has received an exemption to work in child care despite a criminal record: OrlandoSentinel.com/trustbetrayed
Upcoming in this series•Monday: Kids aren't the only ones left in harm's way. Seniors and disabled adults have been abused by caregivers with criminal records. •Tuesday: Under the state's exemption system, more than 8,000 people have been allowed to work as caregivers despite their criminal records.