Aging agencies need better background checks, auditor says

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By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – The state Aging and Adult Services Agency should tighten up its criminal background check policies for employees, contractors’ staff and volunteers to better protect older adults, a new report says.

The critique by the state Auditor General, a nonpartisan investigative arm of the Legislature, cited problems such as insufficient background checks and inconsistent guidelines for reviewing such checks by Michigan’s 16 local agencies for the aging.

The report recommended that the state agency improve its policies and monitoring of local agencies “to increase its assurance that older adults are better protected from potential abuse and exploitation.”

The Attorney General’s office says, “Elder and vulnerable adult abuse, neglect and exploitation are behaviors committed against an elder or vulnerable adult who is unable to protect himself or herself due to a mental or physical impairment or due to advanced age.”

Elder abuse is a serious problem nationwide, according to AARP, which says, “Every year, abuse and exploitation rob older Americans of $3 billion — and this is only the amount reported.”

Local agencies for the aging aren’t part of state government. Some are nonprofits, while others belong to county governments or local health departments, according to communications officer Lynn Sutfin of the Department of Health and Human Services. 

“Each has its own personnel policies and procedures for employment and volunteering, including background checks,” Sutfin said. “We monitor compliance with conducting background checks, but not the substance or results of these checks.”

The Auditor General’s office examined four local agencies it described as: Northwest Senior Resources in Traverse City, covering Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Charlevoix, Kalkaska and Emmet counties; Tri-County Office on Aging in Lansing, covering Ingham, Clinton and Eaton counties; the Southfield Area Agency on Aging covering much of Metro Detroit; and the Detroit-based Senior Alliance in Wayne County.

Health and Human Services funds programs and services for older Michigan residents, such as employment programs, elder right services and caregiver support. It also supervises and monitors the 16 local agencies. 

The state agency agreed on the need to improve its monitoring of local background checks but said its role is not to provide “standardized guidelines” to the local agencies.

The state agency said it’s reviewing its existing criminal background check requirements and plans to issue “updated policy guidance” to local agencies by March 2020, the report said. 

“These guidelines describe how the local agency should document the determination of an applicant’s appropriateness of employment or volunteer activities when a felony conviction is identified,” the agency said in its response to the report.

Currently there is no statewide list of felonies that bar applicants from jobs or volunteer positions with local agencies. 

Executive director Heidi Gustine of Northwest Senior Resources said her agency would do background checks regardless of state requirements because “it’s good business practice.”

She favors current standards that give discretion to local agencies’ human resources policies.

“Not all bad behavior has the same level of bad behavior,” Gustine said, and agencies must consider multiple perspectives when reviewing applicants, including a shortage of skilled workers. For example, she gave the hypothetical of a geriatric nurse with a 30-year-old drunken driving conviction. 

Under such circumstances, a local agency should be able to weigh the past conviction against the nurse’s skills, she said.

Mark Hornbeck, the communications director for AARP Michigan, said, “Policymakers should require nationwide criminal background checks prior to employment for all long-term services and support workers other than licensed professionals.

“For protection of personal safety and financial security, those who have been convicted of certain crimes — burglary, larceny, violent crimes or crimes involving abuse or neglect of vulnerable individuals — should be prohibited from employment in all long-term care settings,” Hornbeck said. 

Only one of the four audited local agencies has listed specific felonies that prevent employment or volunteer service, the Auditor General’s report said. The other three have a “comprehensive policy regarding disqualifying convictions,” according to the report, and “individually reviewed and assessed convictions on a case-by-case basis.”

Those individual reviews considered the nature of the felony, how long ago it occurred and the nature of a volunteer’s or employee’s work, the report said.