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Caregiver Roulette: California Fails to Screen those who Care for the Elderly at Home

We have reprinted the Executive Summary below.  Read the document above for more details on these topics:

- Some caregivers offering their services on Craigslist have extensive criminal backgrounds
- A significant number of caregivers who get into trouble have prior criminal records
- Many in-home caregiver agencies claim to do background checks, but the quality varies and legal roadblocks can prevent thorough screening
- Private individuals hiring caregivers on their own face many obstacles
- California is one of the few states that does not regulate in-home care agencies
- Recommendations

Executive Summary

In December 2010, S.K. placed an advertisement on Bay Area Craigslist offering her services as a caregiver - everything from shopping and driving to hands-on personal care. She wrote that she was experienced in health care, and willing to spend nights at the client's home.

Those potential clients would no doubt have been interested in another fact about S.K. - she once described herself to a sheriff's investigator as a "kleptomaniac" with "uncontrollable urges." She had just been caught stealing $2,400 of merchandise from a garden supply store, which led to a felony burglary conviction and 90 days in jail. She has also been convicted of petty theft, driving under the influence and vandalizing the car of an ex-boyfriend.

S.K.'s Craigslist ad is an illustration of the perils faced by Californians searching for caregivers to work in their homes, the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes has found.

Unlike most other states, California does not regulate the burgeoning in-home care industry, leaving consumers prey to individuals who fail to disclose their criminal backgrounds and dependent on agencies whose "background checks" don't come close to digging up unsavory pasts. A 2008 law intended to help individuals hiring caregivers on their own has languished as the result of confusion over who's supposed to spell out howit will work.

The state does license home health agencies, which provide skilled nursing at home in conjunction with a plan prescribed by a doctor. But agencies that place caregivers who help with activities of daily living - such as bathing, toileting, dressing, walking and eating - do not require anything more than a business license. Individuals who offer these services in newspaper classified ads or Internet services such as Craigslist are similarly free of state oversight.

A growing population of elderly and disabled adults is looking for alternatives to long-term care such as nursing homes, assisted living and board-and-cares. Businesses and individuals have stepped forward to meet this need, offering help with activities of daily living short of medical care.

There are an estimated 1,200 in-home care agencies in California and anunknown number of individuals, such as S.K., looking for caregiver jobson their own.

The lack of regulation has resulted in an industry compared by more than one insider to the Wild West. Our report confirms that the current landscape is creating risk for consumers that could be alleviated by legislation, ranging from full-scale licensing to narrower measures to  help clients obtain and understand criminal background checks and other records.

Among our findings:

• More than a quarter of caregivers accused or convicted of crimes that we identified from news accounts had committed previous offenses, underscoring the potential value of screening. Given our office's limited means of checking criminal backgrounds, this figure is almost certainly an underestimate. One caregiver we investigated had been convicted of embezzling $43,000 from a church and, a few years later, stealing $18,675 from her bedridden mother. She nonetheless found a job as a live-in caregiver for an 82-year-old woman. She moved into the woman's bedroom and started charging her rent, used the woman's accounts to buy herself cars and other goods, and tried to put the house up for sale before she was arrested. In most of the cases we looked at, recent crimes were a good predictor of a caregiver's transgressions.

• Many in-home care agencies claim to do "background checks," but this can range from a thorough screening required for certification by a state association to a $19.95 instant Internet check that experts say yields almost nothing of value. Agencies have been sued for shoddy background checks that resulted in felonious caregivers being placed with vulnerable seniors and committing new crimes. Other lawsuits have revealed instances of agencies finding out about a caregiver's criminal background, but placing the caregiver in someone's home anyway. Even the many agencies that do more thorough checking can miss convictions older than seven years old because of a California law limiting the reach of consumer background reports.

• Few Californians who hire caregivers on their own know that they have a legal right to request a statewide criminal background check through the Department of Justice. In the first three months of this year, no consumers asked for the fingerprintbased screening. Meanwhile, a 2008 law that was meant to help consumers get and understand criminal background checks is being ignored. The law envisioned that the help would be provided by public authorities that train and screen workers in the state's In-Home Supportive Services program. But not a single public authority of the 26 that we contacted said they could assist.

The bill's backers looked to the Department of Social Services to write regulations or give other guidance. The department says the law never intended it to take on that role.

• A survey we conducted of 30 states, covering 83 percent of the U.S. population, found that California is part of a small minority that does not regulate in-home care agencies. Only five other states in our survey leave the industry unregulated. The 24 other states that do regulate in-home care agencies employ a wide variety of approaches, with some laws encompassing businesses that refer caregivers to clients as well as those that employ them.

Three states either require anyone representing herself as a caregiver to work for an agency where they are subject to background screening, or submit to a criminal background check as an independent caregiver. Napa County recently passed an ordinance requiring all caregivers, whether working for an agency or independently, to apply for a permit that includes a criminal background check. Other counties are considering similar measures.

Two bills now before the Legislature would regulate in-home care agencies for the first time. Because the bills were introduced after we embarked on this report and will be vetted during the legislative process, we do not analyze them. Our report does make several commendations, however, including some that deal with the part of the industry that would remain unregulated even if the current bills become law. Among the options are carving out an exception to a state law that prevents consumer reporting agencies from disclosing convictions older than seven years, funding a public education campaign to let consumers know how to get and interpret a statewide criminal background check, and legislation to create a family care protection registry that would allow clients to find caregivers who have voluntarily undergone screening.

Rosalie Gonsolin, whose mother lost $30,000 to a caregiver with an extensive criminal history, wonders why the in-home care industry is not subject to the same oversight as day care centers or long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.

"There just needs to be regulation in place," Gonsolin said. "Why, if someone wants to stay in their own home, shouldn't they have the same guidelines?"

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