Using Childcare Background Checks to Create Safer Environments

In 2012, Dateline NBC ran a story that shocked many parents when its reporting revealed that many daycares nationwide employed individuals with seriously concerning criminal records. There was no broad requirement for childcare background checks at the federal level, and at the time, states were left mainly to make their own decisions. In an industry plagued by high costs and low funding, the result was that many potentially dangerous individuals slipped through the cracks, gaining an opportunity to work directly with young children. 

In some cases, this led to actual harm and abuse at the hands of people with child abuse convictions. Many parents assumed at the time that a daycare licensed by state agencies would have thorough background check procedures as a condition of receiving funding or licensing. That wasn’t always true. In 2012, only half of the states required background checks, and only ten required fingerprint-based background checks despite receiving federal funding.

Today, the landscape looks much different thanks to the 2014 passage of modifications to the federal block grant program for childcare. Implementing the law has been slow, and the original 2020 deadline for compliance has seen several extensions. Even so, childcare workers in most states today must undergo more extensive vetting than in previous years or risk losing federal funding. Take a moment to consider why this change has been so vital and what the law means for today’s childcare providers.

Why a Criminal Background Check for Employment in a Daycare is So Vital

There are two fundamental reasons for investing time and effort into screening every person who works in your childcare organization. The first is the most important: protecting young and vulnerable children from the possibility of serious and lasting harm. The second is all about legal compliance and ensuring that you honor the terms of state licensing arrangements. Even license-exempt organizations must now comply with state regulations on background checks.

No parent wants to use a daycare with an unsafe reputation–another essential element to consider when protecting children and complying with the law. It may take only one serious incident involving someone with a dangerous record to trigger the collapse and closure of a daycare provider. Protecting children translates into protecting and improving your reputation. Demonstrating to parents that you’ve made every possible effort to hire the safest, most reliable individuals can only benefit your brand.

What Are the Specifics of Today’s Compliant Background Checks?

The childcare block grant law is unambiguous: everyone working in a relevant childcare setting must undergo screening, including all administrators. Custodial and kitchen staff, teachers, and all volunteers with unsupervised access to children must commit to screening. In the past, volunteers were an especially risky category of childcare workers as there was often very little oversight due to the urgent need to find additional help.

According to, these are the specific requirements for criminal background checks that have come into force gradually since 2014:

  • State-based registries of offenders who committed child neglect or abuse
  • The National Criminal Information Center, or NCIC, sex offender registry
  • An FBI-provided national criminal background check using fingerprints 

Childcare providers must check records in every state where an applicant lived over the five years before their application.

As we can see, these regulations are comprehensive. Unfortunately, some states have continued to fall behind in implementing the law. Providers should consider adopting the federal guidelines even if their state has not finalized federally compliant regulations.

How Frequently Do Childcare Organizations Need to Screen Employees?

Under federal government guidelines, companies must re-check all employees every five years. Turnover in this industry tends to be high, so you may not often need to re-screen many workers beyond those in administration. However, when employees reach the five-year mark, employers must re-do the entire vetting process, including the fingerprint-based background check. The five-year requirement aims to avoid severe criminal actions off-site going unnoticed. In many ways, it is similar to the goal of solutions such as ongoing monitoring tools.

Is Any Criminal Record Problematic for Childcare Employment?

Not all criminal records are an instant barrier to working with children. Violent crimes, high-level felonies and, of course, crimes of a sexual nature are all disqualifying factors - as one would expect. However, low-level drug convictions, such as for possession, may not necessarily mean someone cannot work for you. Many states have exemption request forms allowing some individuals to pass the screening process when you determine they’re otherwise safe and qualified. A criminal conviction shouldn’t be an automatic “no,” but it does merit more careful consideration. 

Fundamental Safety Must Go Beyond Background Checks

While background checks can help you explore the different types of criminal records someone might have, they aren’t the ultimate tool for safety—instead, they’re one part of a larger strategy. The correct approach should involve rules and regulations you establish and enforce within the business. For example, some agencies never allow adults to be alone and unsupervised with children. Instead, there are always two care workers present to provide accountability. 

Training staff about their obligations regarding mandatory reporting is also vital. Ultimately, you must achieve buy-in from everyone to contribute to safer outcomes every day. With everyone on board, you can focus on providing five-star service for parents.

Always Refer to Your Local Rules and Regulations

States that receive block grant funding must follow the federal guidelines on background check requirements, but they also have the freedom to go further. Your stay may have rules requiring more stringent vetting or more frequent re-checking than federal law demands. Still, it remains wise to consult with experienced local counsel to determine what compliance obligations your business has. Monitor these laws for changes, too—there’s no telling when a legislative session will produce new changes that affect your childcare business.

The Future of Childcare Background Check Procedures

Compliance with new federal requirements is an ongoing process at the state level, especially as the childcare block grant continues suffering from federal funding shortfalls. Underfunding problems have led some states to struggle with background check implementation, with severe delays. Debate continues across congressional sessions about how much money to contribute to the program, which could mean many more years of uneven policy applications.

While the government wrangles over funding and the requirements to get it, businesses today should look to the federal guidelines for childcare background checks as a signpost to follow seriously. Though regulations have advanced a long way since the 2012 Dateline exposé, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any problems in the industry. Take a proactive role and demonstrate to parents that your business uses advanced vetting tools and scours sex offender registries to create a safe environment.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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