Only 15 states perform thorough background checks on childcare workers paid by the federal government, according to the Health and Human Services (HHS) inspector general.
The Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) spends $5.2 billion a year subsidizing childcare providers for low-income Americans in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia. The HHS program is managed by Administration for Children and Families (ACF).
The inspector general found that many states do not check sex-offender registries when hiring childcare workers for the program.
"Although all states reported screening childcare workers, many reported not checking FBI fingerprint databases or sex-offender registries in accordance with ACF’s recommendations," the report said.
"The sources least often checked by states were FBI criminal records and sex offender registries," the IG said.
States are not required to perform background checks on childcare workers, though they are strongly encouraged to do so. The agency recommends screening "all prospective child care staff" and "any other persons who have regular access to children in these child care settings."
The ACF considers a thorough background screening to involve checking state and FBI criminal records, as well as child abuse registries.
"Only 15 States reported performing checks sufficient to be considered comprehensive background screenings for both center-based and family home providers," the IG said. Just 28 states checked sex offender registries.
There are about 505,000 childcare providers who serve 1.6 million children every month through the program.
Teresa Dailey, a program analyst for the HHS inspector general’s office, said each state has different rules for background checks, resulting in gaps in screenings for childcare workers.
"For example, New Jersey allows family day care home providers to self-disclose criminal convictions," she said in a podcast discussing the report. "Virginia does too, but their providers still undergo criminal background checks."
"Wyoming uses its child abuse registry as a pre-screening with a fingerprint check through their state, if necessary," Dailey said.
"So, it is very important that parents be informed about their state’s requirements," she said.
Among the most "serious risks" found by the IG were unscreened individuals living in family daycare homes, Dailey said.
Federal law does require health and safety standards for licensed childcare providers, including measures to prevent infectious diseases and health training.
Twenty-one states, however, do not conduct unannounced inspections on family home daycare providers, which are most effective at uncovering violations.
"When states do not conduct monitoring, they miss opportunities to identify deficiencies and recommend provider improvements," the report said.
"Examples of deficiencies cited during unannounced monitoring inspections included: number of children in care significantly differing from the number of children recorded on the sign in/sign out log, not enough staff for the license capacity, expired CPR and first aid certification, and bleach in an unlocked cabinet in the classroom."
The ACF has proposed "more stringent health and safety" regulations that would mandate all states to conduct comprehensive criminal background checks for all providers, including clearance through sex offender registries.