Auditor: School districts, service providers failed to check child abuse registry

Elementary school students head back to class after lunch and recess. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Eleven supervisory districts or unions failed to screen job applicants in 2018 using Vermont’s child abuse registry. 

That’s according to a pair of reports released Wednesday by the State Auditor’s Office, which found that while state agencies, schools, and local service providers generally followed the law, there were some notable exceptions.

“Unlike some other types of governmental efforts, with this one, being good 95% of the time isn’t enough,” Doug Hoffer, the state’s auditor, said in an interview ahead of the reports’ release.

Act 1 of 2009 was passed in the wake of a 12-year-old girl’s rape and murder, and it completely overhauled Vermont’s approach to preventing, investigating, and punishing sex crimes, particularly against children. 

In companion reports studying both the agencies of Education and Human Services – as well as the on-the-ground entities they oversee – the auditor’s office checked to see if the state, schools, mental health agencies, and other service providers screened job applicants and those seeking educators’ licenses as required by the landmark reform. The reports specifically studied whether the required screens were performed in 2018, and how prospective employers responded when applicants did pop up in the registry.

The Child Protection Registry, which is maintained by the Department for Children and Families, contains a list of people with substantiated reports of child abuse or neglect, even if there was no criminal conviction. After receiving an applicant’s consent, an organization can submit their names to check against the CPR database, which includes reports dating back to 1992.

According to state law, the Agency of Education is required to check the CPR when individuals apply for, renew, or request the reinstatement of an educator’s licence. The agency issued 1,990 licenses in 2018, and in 92% of all cases, performed the necessary check in the correct fashion. 

But in 56 cases, according to the report, the agency didn’t submit a CPR check; in another 72 instances, it submitted incorrect information to DCF; and in another 34, it wasn’t clear that a licensing specialist actually reviewed what DCF reported back.

VT State Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the AoE, said the agency has already conducted follow-up screenings for the 8% of cases in which names weren’t submitted to the registry or submitted incorrectly.

“All of these follow-ups came back clear. We have also already implemented an additional quality control process to prevent errors and missed checks in the future,” he said. 

Vermont superintendents are also required to screen job applicants and student teachers using the registry, as well as any contractors – or their employees – who may have unsupervised contact with children.

Auditors found that in 2018, two-thirds of all supervisory unions or supervisory districts performed CPR checks as required. But 11 didn’t perform any checks that year, and another seven performed CPR checks in some, but not all, required categories.

According to the auditor’s report, of the 11 supervisory union or supervisory districts that failed to perform any checks, seven reported that they would check all existing employees against the CPR, two reported that they would submit or review checks for a specific time period, and one reported that it would submit requests for individuals that hadn’t been screened.

Only one supervisory union – the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union – reported that it would not go back to check current employees, according to the report, but would submit CPR checks in the future.

In an email, WSESU Superintendent David Baker said the report didn’t have it quite right, mostly because the district wasn’t given the chance to elaborate. 

“I never said to anyone that we would never go back and do the historical check,” Baker wrote, although he added that the report might have been accurate in a narrow sense. 

“No advice, just yes or no. So at that moment in time, they probably technically reported accurately, but it was such an unusual survey process,” he said.

The supervisory union, which serves the students of Windsor, West Windsor, Hartland, and Weathersfield, he said, did plan to check all employees hired in 2018 in the immediate future, and then later check all current employees. 

Baker told staff at the auditor’s office point blank that while the district would check new employees in the future, it wouldn’t go back to check previous hires, according to documents shared by Hoffer. Doing so, he said, would be “far too arduous.”

“I have considered the risk and we will not be doing a registry check on current employees,” Baker wrote in an email to the auditor’s office in June.

And in a subsequent email to VTDigger, in which Baker said the district had completed all checks for employees hired this year, and started the work of checking all employees hired in 2018, he said wasn’t sure if the district would “go back further than that at this point.”

“HR says it is a fairly easy process, the most difficult part is securing permission from those already employed. It is time intensive,” Baker said.

Baker added that the audit came at the same time as the supervisory union was redesigning its onboarding process and hiring its first full-time human resources manager. Baker said that he had told the auditors the district needed ramp-up time to get used to the new system, and complained that they had been unwilling to offer recommendations.

“We just got the report — how about some direction and advice. None of that. Too bad,” he wrote.

Baker also noted that licensed employees – like teachers – are screened by the Agency of Education when they apply for or renew their license.

According to the report, most supervisory unions that failed to perform the checks said they simply didn’t know they were required to do them. The Agency of Education is responsible for ensuring schools comply with laws and for coordinating training for superintendents, the report notes, but it hasn’t monitored whether districts have been performing CPR checks, and it hasn’t held a training or issued guidance on the subject.

“The problem of the schools who have not been doing it can be fixed without much trouble if the agency devotes a little more resources to working with the schools and informing them what their responsibilities are,” Hoffer said.

Education Secretary Dan French testifies before a joint meeting of the House Education and Government Operations Committees at the Statehouse in Montpelier.
Education Secretary Dan French. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Fisher said the AoE had relied in the past on partner organizations to support schools in this area, but that it would take “a more active role going forward.” The agency plans to issue specific guidance to those districts that didn’t conduct checks last year, as well as generalized memo for all public and private schools administrators.

The report found that, in a majority of cases, schools declined to hire or allow to volunteer people who popped up in the registry. And when districts did take on employees or volunteers in the registry, they almost always reported some sort of safeguard. In three cases, the Agency of Education issued licenses to people who were in the registry.

“In each case, the agency concluded that issuing a license would not pose a risk to students, and implemented additional safeguards on license renewal or relicensing,” Fisher said.

The auditor’s office also explored how well the Agency of Human Services’ subgrantees and contractors did at screening employees with access to children. AHS is charged with overseeing a sprawling system of providers, including the state’s designated agencies, which deliver mental health services; parent child centers, which support prospective parents; and treatment facilities for children and youth with emotional behavior and other challenges.

In its report, the auditor found that most entities overseen by AHS checked newly hired employees as required. But the report found “three notable exceptions” where providers failed to check the registry for a significant number of new hires: DCF’s Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, the Lund Family Center, and the Vermont Permanency Initiative

Outside Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

All three organizations told the auditor’s office they had gone back to do the CPR checks (which did not turn up substantiated reports) and corrected the procedural flaws that led to the oversights in hiring. 

In a letter responding to the auditor’s draft report, DCF director of operations Pamela Dalley also said that the department believed that a CPR check had been performed as required for all Woodside employees, but that the method used to screen the individuals hadn’t left a digital footprint. Dalley said the department would use a uniform system for screening employees in the future, which would create a receipt of the check.

The auditor’s AHS report also notes that the agency’s hiring policy to check applicants for any job involving the care, custody, treatment, and transportation of children includes a major exemption – classified state employees. The reports’ only recommendation to the Legislature is that this change, and that state employees not be exempt.

Vermont State Employees Association executive director Steve Howard said the union wasn’t necessarily opposed to such a change, but that it shouldn’t be handled through the Legislature. The VSEA would prefer the administration instead propose a side letter – an addition to the existing contract – which the union and the state could bargain over.

This story has been updated to include additional information from the auditor’s office and the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union about the district’s position on checking current employees’ names against the state’s Child Protection Registry.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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