November 13th, 2014 | Sterling
Legal Loophole Lets Felons Become Social Workers
Social workers handle society’s most vulnerable population. From children to the elderly and those with disabilities, a social worker’s job involves significant interaction with individuals who are most susceptible to being taken advantage of.
So it’s safe to say that you would be surprised to hear that New Mexico grants social worker licenses to convicted felons. This is due to a loophole in the current legislation which has not been updated since 1987. The outdated law prevents the licensing board from requiring background checks on all applicants, leaving applicant disclosure as the only available screening practice.
Lori Vallejos, who was on probation for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon managed to get her social worker license after offering an explanation that she was simply moving a gun during an argument when it went off. The board accepted the explanation without an accurate idea of what actually caused her to be convicted of such a serious crime. It turns out that she had fired the gun at her boyfriend after he refused to buy her drugs.
The licensing board is calling for lawmakers to amend the law and allow them to implement background checks as a requirement in order to obtain a social worker license. And even though an individual with a violent criminal history can technically receive a social worker license in New Mexico, many employers of social workers require their own background check prior to hiring. For example, the Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) requires a thorough pre-employment background check and another background check when an employee is transferred or promoted. For added security, they implemented a process in 2006 to receive notifications when an employee is under investigation for abuse or neglect.
Unlike private employers, public entities typically have little discretion available to implement a program on their own. CYFD is a good example of an organization that has taken clear measures to prevent criminals with relevant convictions from gaining access to their vulnerable clients. However, like employers in all industries, there are still many organizations that have yet to adopt a formal background screening policy.
When establishing your background screening policy, it is imperative that you do not exclusively rely on other agencies or licensing bodies to conduct background checks. You cannot assume that someone else has done their due diligence and if a background check was indeed done, you cannot be confident that it was thorough enough to meet your standards.
If your organization employs individuals with access to a vulnerable population, you should also use employee monitoring services that notify you when an employee has been arrested or charged with a crime. Criminal record checks only document someone’s criminal record at that specific moment in time so they become immediately out of date. Employee risk alerts and monitoring services turn background checks into an ongoing, continuous process.
Whichever methods of background checking you decide to use for your organization, the first step is to document a clearly written, thorough background screening policy to prevent loopholes like the one affecting New Mexico social workers.
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