- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2010

A D.C. government agency that received nearly $1 million a year to provide child care services under the federal “Head Start” program failed to conduct background checks on its employees, including workers previously convicted of drug and other felony offenses, a federal audit released Monday found.

The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), which no longer operates child care centers under the program, failed to meet basic background check requirements for its 43 employees, investigators with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said.

The workers include six DPR drivers who should have been disqualified from working with children because of past offenses such as kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, and possession of marijuana and cocaine with intent to distribute, according to the report.

“By not ensuring that all employees who supervised or had routine unsupervised contact with children met all federal and state preemployment requirements, (DPR) potentially jeopardized the safety of children in its care,” auditors wrote.

Other problems uncovered during the federal audit focused on physical conditions at 10 child care centers, where investigators found a host of safety lapses, including:

- Poison ivy growing at the bottom of a sliding board.

- Sharp metal clamps on playground equipment.

- Glue, or mouse, traps under a sink in a children’s bathroom.

Security expert Chris E. McGoey said it wouldn’t be expensive for a city agency to conduct background and criminal checks on employees.

“There are dozens and dozens of screening companies out there that will do everything if you give them a name and a Social Security number, and in a matter of seconds they have the available data,” he said

In the case of DPR, the department was providing child care services under a federal grant that had been awarded to the D.C.-based United Planning Organization (UPO).

Dana M. Jones, UPO chief executive, said all of the issues outlined in the federal audit have been fixed, including staff background checks, according to a letter he sent to the inspector general’s office. He did not respond to e-mail and phone messages Monday, nor did a spokesman with DPR.

Mr. Jones said none of the drivers identified in the report, including those with criminal backgrounds, were hired by UPO when the District elected no longer to provide Head Start services in September 2009.

He also said the child care centers are safer: “We have overhauled our entire administrative structure to make sure this never happens again,” he wrote. “Not only are all sites subject to random inspections, but monthly a certified inspection of physical locations is submitted for review.”

The report isn’t the first time the D.C. government has been criticized for its handling of background checks in recent years.

In 2004, the D.C. government gave a liquor license to Antoine Jones, despite felony drug-dealing convictions in Virginia and the District that should have disqualified him. He later opened a nightclub that closed after his arrest on drug charges, though a federal appeals court has since reversed the conviction.

In 2005, the Metropolitan Police Department dismissed 10 school security officers after an audit found contract employees with criminal records that included convictions for assault with a deadly weapon, larceny and drug possession.

And in 2006, an investigation by The Washington Times found criminal violations among transportation contractors hired to drive D.C. Medicaid patients to medical appointments.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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