Wisconsin Will Require Background Checks for Some Social Workers

By Michael Klazema on 9/29/2015
According to a recently published report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin is launching a "test program" for social worker background checks in the state. Previously, Wisconsin hasn't run any criminal background screenings of individuals applying for social worker licenses, despite the fact that some other states require such checks for all applicants. However, after a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation revealed that Wisconsin had licensed some pretty unsavory characters over the years, including, apparently, a "serial rapist" and a "bank robber", the state's Department of Justice has decided that screenings may be necessary.

For now, the test program will only require background checks on about 5% of licensed social workers in the state. Since Wisconsin has "approximately 10,000" licensed social workers at the moment, the background checks will hardly put a dent in what could be a fairly substantial screening gap.

Even the 500 individuals who do have to go through the background checks could feasibly still slip through the cracks with serious criminal records. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report, the Wisconsin Department of Justice will only be running criminal background checks on a state level. In other words, the screenings won't catch any criminal convictions from the other 49 states, Washington D.C., or any of the USA's other territories.

Right now, Wisconsin's Department of Safety and Professional Services, which issues licenses for social workers, as well as more than 200 other professions, works on an honor system. Social workers, barbers, doctors, and other individuals looking to achieve licensure with the state are asked on their applications to disclose their own criminal histories. But honor systems rarely work, especially if there isn't a background check policy to keep people honest and accountable. Just like a job applicant might not disclose a sexual harassment conviction for fear that it might disqualify him from consideration, an applicant for a social work license in Wisconsin might opt to hide a criminal conviction.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin is facing something of a dilemma here. On one hand, it is less then optimal to license individuals for a profession without checking their backgrounds. This point is especially true for professions like doctors or social workers, which often involve work with vulnerable individuals or groups. On the other hand, the cost of going back and running background checks on 10,000 state-licensed social workers (as well as on all new applicants) would be hugely expensive. According to Dave Ross, the secretary for the Department of Safety and Professional Services, it would cost $150,000 simply to run the checks. The staff time that would be necessary to process all of those checks, meanwhile, would cost the state millions.

A smart compromise, in this case, might be to draft legislation that would require employers to run criminal checks on any social worker hires. Already, the state has a background check requirement for caregivers. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, the caregiver background check law already applies to some social workers, since some branches of social work involve home visits to the elderly or services for the mentally ill. A law requiring background checks for all social work hires would save the state money and put the expense on the employers. The state would still have to make some investment in the policy: auditors to make sure the rules are being followed, for instance. But it might help to make sure that rapists and bank robbers are kept far away from jobs in the social work sphere.

Industry News

Tag Cloud
Recent Posts

Latest News

  • March 20 Employers who use E-Verify must follow the proper steps and procedures when they receive a “tentative non-confirmation notice” from either the Social Security Administration or Department of Homeland Security. Failure to follow the proper procedures can cost employers both time and money. 
  • March 20

    Four Department of Commerce employees are out after their background checks resulted in security clearance denials. All four had worked high-ranking positions for months despite incomplete background checks.

  • March 15 As more states legalize the recreational use of cannabis, they contend with the emergence of new industries surrounding marijuana cultivation and production. 
  • March 14 In most cases, it is easy to determine where an issue might show up on a pre-employment background check. Citations for traffic violations or reckless driving charges will appear on a motor vehicle record check. Verdicts in a civil court case will show on a civil court background check. And criminal convictions—from petty theft to violent felonies—show up on criminal background checks.
  • March 13 How many years back do employment background checks go? This question can have multiple different answers depending on the situation.
  • March 13 A new bill in Florida would require landlords of apartment complexes to present tenants with verifications of employee background checks to give them peace of mind the people working in and around their homes are trustworthy.
  • March 08 Police officers working with the University of Texas at Arlington recently arrested a man who had avoided police capture on a warrant out of Oregon for nearly two decades. The man, whose real name is Daniel Charles Ray Hanson, spent those 17 years using a variety of fake names and identification documents to move around the country, often engaging with educational institutions under false pretenses. Police say Hanson regularly went by at least three different aliases. He sports a rap sheet that stretches back to an arson conviction in 1995. 
  • March 07

    The Future of EEOC Guidance in Texas Is Up in the Air

    The EEOC issued guidance in 2012 warning employers about the dangers of enforcing categorical policies to bar candidates with criminal histories. That guidance is not enforceable in Texas thanks to a recent court ruling.

  • March 05 Vermont is the latest state to restrict employers’ access to and use of social media accounts of employees and applicants. 
  • March 01 In an age of "industry disruptors" turning established business models on their heads, companies such as Uber and Lyft rely on a unique workforce of individuals outside the traditional employer-employee context. Uber calls them "partners" while other businesses refer to them as "independent contractors," the official classification these individuals use for tax purposes. Recently, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) revealed they had warned a business, Postmates, for misclassifying their staff as independent contractors. In the NLRB's determination, these individuals were employees.