In response to concern from day care providers and parents, the North Dakota Department of Human Services reduced the time it takes to process background checks for a new day care employee.
Grand Forks day care providers in November worried they might close because of federal legislation that went into effect October of 2018, requiring the initial portion of a fingerprint-based criminal background check to be completed before newly hired staff could begin working. These changes were the result of the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant of 2014.
Shortly after outcry from providers, the state was issued a waiver that allows new employees to begin work under direct supervision after submitting a background check application.
"We definitely are seeing an improvement. In the past it was taking several weeks to several months to get some of these background checks turned around," said Dan Polasky, owner of Wonder Years Childcare in Grand Forks. "Now, we're seeing probably an average of seven to 10 days, which is much better."
Some of the changes to the background check process include hiring a full-time temporary employee in January to sort through mail, giving program specialists more time to focus on the background checks, and creating a new background check form.
At present, licensed child care providers and their staff are required to complete two forms to authorize a background check. Beginning July 1, there will be a new, more user-friendly form.
Applicants will type their information in the online form, which will reduce the number of returned applications because of illegible handwriting, said Tara Reed, supervisor of the department's Criminal Background Check Unit (CBCU).
Reed said the state worked with a peer review group, almost like a focus group, that included county child care licensors, regional early childhood services staff and licensed child care providers who shared feedback on the form.
"We wanted to develop an easily understood form that would eliminate the need to fill out multiple forms," Reed said. "This will greatly decrease the number of returns we have."
The feature Reed said she is most excited about is that when an applicant enters a date it is linked to the address portion of the form, which gives them a date through which they have to provide their address history.
"We put a lot of work and effort and brainstorming into this form," Reed said.
Polasky thinks the new electronic form will make things better.
"It's shorter, clearer and there are less chances to make mistakes. Typing the form cut down on spelling mistakes," Polasky said.
Another thing the department did was collaborate with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation to have its personnel pick up those records as part of the morning mail run.
"Just that change in and of itself gained us up to six days in terms of time, so that was big," Reed said.
Held up by other states
But there is only so much North Dakota can do.
"North Dakota's hands are tied by these other states. Right now, anyone who's lived out of state in the past five years have to be checked in each state," Polasky said. "And you have states that never reply or take months to reply, so staff members can never be a full employee because they always have to be under supervision."
Carlson echoed Polasky, saying that seeking records from other states could delay the process. Reed said the turnaround time for background checks is significantly reduced for individuals who haven't lived outside North Dakota, but not so much for those who have lived outside the state.
"The turnaround for some other states is a day or two, but in Texas it is 90 days," Reed said.
On Oct. 1, the department will reimplement a federal background check requirement that mandates new employees of a child care provider cannot begin work until the department receives and reviews their background check.
Amanda Carlson, the department's early childhood services administrator, stressed that the background check processes would not change, but only the provisional employment requirement, which is set by the federal office of Administration for Children and Families.
"The 'provision' of the employment is that they have to be directly supervised 100% of the time while they are working until the entirety of their background check comes back satisfactorily," Carlson said. "When we reimplement the federal requirement, we are going back to the process that we started in October of 2018."
Ultimately, Polasky would like to see a consistent seven- or eight-day turnaround on background checks.
"I don't think we're quite at the finish line yet, but we are getting closer," Polasky said.