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Background checks flawed, Washington auditor says

Wed., May 8, 2013

Auditor suggests closer link between state, FBI

OLYMPIA – Washington could do a better job of checking the backgrounds of workers in key jobs by submitting their fingerprints to a system operated by the FBI, the state auditor’s office recommended in a report Tuesday.

Regular checks through what’s known as a “rap back service” could help the state avoid problems like the one discovered in an audit last year in which the Seattle School District did not know that a janitor in one of its schools was a convicted sex offender, the report says. But it would come with a higher cost and require some changes in state law.

The chairman of a Senate committee that would have to handle legislation necessary to use such a system said the idea is worth exploring in next year’s session.

“It’s at least worth taking a look at,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

The state does background checks on hundreds of thousands of people, including teachers and other school employees, foster parents, licensed child care workers, health care professionals and school volunteers. About half require fingerprints; the other half are done on simply a name and birth date. The fingerprint checks are handled by the Washington State Patrol, and state law doesn’t allow federal checks for all job applicants.

The checks are done before hiring, and for some jobs follow-up checks are done at two- or three-year intervals to make sure the worker still has a clean record.

Under rap back, the FBI would notify the state agency or school district whenever there’s a match with a new arrest or conviction and a person already in the system. The agency or district wouldn’t have to wait for the scheduled follow-up check.

But to be part of the rap back system, the FBI would have to be able to keep the fingerprints sent for the initial background check. State law forbids keeping school employee fingerprints after the check is completed, the auditor’s report says.

Rap back would also be more expensive, the report adds. Currently, the state spends no more than $17 for background checks, and much less for name and birth date checks. Checks with fingerprints through rap back currently cost as much as $42. The state would also have to spend about $300,000 to get the system up and running and about $350,000 each year to operate and maintain it.

All but 10 states have some form of a rap back system, and Padden said Washington should at least explore “catching up” with what other states are doing. There also may be privacy concerns.

“It’s always a balancing thing,” Padden said. “But the public is quite concerned about sex offenders in positions of trust.”

The report released Tuesday was an outgrowth of an audit conducted last year that revealed problems in background checks, including a Seattle school janitor who passed his initial check, didn’t tell his district about a subsequent conviction for a sex offense and then kept his job for nine years without being detected.

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