background check for social workers

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.


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