by Annmarie Timmins, New Hampshire Bulletin
Child care leaders received what they are calling “devastating” news Thursday. As of Dec. 15, they will no longer be able to start new hires before their background checks are done, a process they say can take six weeks or longer. Currently, new staff can start immediately as long as they are supervised and accompanied until their background checks are completed.
Being forced to leave a job vacant for six weeks or more will make hiring, already a struggle, even harder and force some centers to close, they said. They also warned that losing child care options affects all businesses, whose employees rely on child care centers.
“It’s devastating,” said Marianne Barter, executive director of Merrimack Valley Day Care Service and head of the state Child Care Advisory Council. “It’s going to be devastating.” Barter said the council intends to ask for a meeting with Gov. Chris Sununu to discuss the situation.
Federal regulations have long required child care centers to wait for the results of a background check before allowing new employees to start work. But the state Department of Health and Human Services has provided centers a waiver that allows them to bring on new staff immediately with a requirement they not be left alone with children before their background checks are completed.
In a letter to providers Thursday, the department said it will no longer accept or approve waivers after Dec. 15 in order to “maintain compliance” with the federal regulations. Health and Human Services spokesman Jake Leon told the Bulletin Thursday that the department was facing a $700,000 penalty from federal regulators if it did not come into compliance with the federal rules that prohibit providers from working with children before their background check is completed. He said the department has been working with providers since April to prepare them for this change.
Leon acknowledged the delay in processing background checks and said it has created hiring problems. He said that has changed since the department has updated the background check process from checks done by hand to a web-based portal. “Using the NH Connections portal shortens the process, and reduces transcription errors and rejections due to illegibility, so providers can receive results faster,” Leon said in an email. “We have been working with childcare providers since April of 2022 to prepare, train, and allow them time to adjust to this process improvement.”
Leon said the Department of Safety, which does the background checks, has “made several accommodations in turnaround time and process.” He referred questions about those changes to the Department of Safety. Tyler Dumont, spokesman for the Department of Safety, said that agency handles only a portion of the background check – processing and disseminating state criminal history records and federal fingerprint-based criminal history records.
Dumont said once the department receives a background check for a child care provider, it can provide results in about 48 hours. “At that point, results are made available to the Department of Health and Human Services for them to continue their process,” he said in an email.
Dumont disputed statements from providers about the new portal, which has been in place since May 2021, being problematic. “The criminal records unit is not experiencing any major issues with the portal,” he said.
Dumont also rejected child care providers’ complaints about having to wait as much as two weeks to get an appointment for fingerprinting, which is necessary to do the background check. “We regularly have appointment availability throughout the state. There are dozens currently open as soon as next week,” he said. He referred child care providers to the department’s portal at services.dos.nh.gov/chri/cpo/.
Barter and Jackie Cowell, executive director of the advocacy group Early Learning NH, said the turnaround time has not improved; they said they have heard from several child care providers who are waiting weeks to get results.
Barter and Concord Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, who ran the Merrimack Valley Day Care Service for 45 years and remains involved in the child care community, said paying a $700,000 fine would be far less detrimental to the state than eliminating waivers.
“The potential loss of revenue for child care providers and potential loss of wages of parents who need child care facilities to work is greater,” Wallner said.
A single teacher leaving with two weeks notice could become a crisis, Wallner said: “If you can’t find someone who already passed the police check and you can’t get the police check done, what can you do in that classroom? You may have to ask families to leave until you can get the police check done.”
Barter said the waivers allow centers to train staff and provide them mentoring while they await the results of background checks. Without the waiver, new hires can’t even be on the premises until their background checks are completed, leaving their job open for weeks. That’s going to make hiring harder than it is now, Barter said.
“I just don’t know how they are going to be able to work through this because in this climate hiring people is so difficult,” she said. “Asking people to wait weeks before they can actually start? These are not highly paid jobs. They are modestly paid jobs, and people need their paycheck as quickly as they can get it.”
Background checks for child care workers include a search of federal and state sex offender registries, state and federal criminal records, and child abuse and neglect reports.
“Everyone understands the value of background checks,” Cowell said. “No one wants to stop the background check process. The ideal is you have a quick background check approval process that lasts about a week.”
The state has pumped millions of dollars in pandemic aid into supporting child care centers, whose pre-pandemic financial strains worsened when COVID-19 closed their doors. But that assistance has not solved the financial strain, child care leaders said.
“(Providers) are small businesses,” Cowell said. “They don’t have the ability to pay (staff) without having them work.”
Leon said the department shares providers’ concerns about the child care workforce. “We continue to work on strategies to streamline this process, including working regularly with the Child Care Advisory Council,” he said in an email. Leon said those strategies include reaching out to providers to help them navigate the new portal and encouraging them to ask their local police departments about providing another option for fingerprinting.
This story was written by Annmarie Timmins, senior reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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