On page 150 of a 205-page state document prepared for the federal government is a 21-word example of the LePage administration’s willingness to sacrifice federal funding and children’s well-being in order to achieve some political end.
It’s a sentence asserting the LePage administration’s refusal to comply with part of a federal law that brings $16 million to $17 million into the state every year to help low-income, working families pay for high-quality child care.
In 2014, when Congress reauthorized the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, the legislation included a number of provisions aimed at improving the quality and safety of the nation’s variety of child care settings. One change was a requirement that child care centers fingerprint all current and prospective employees as part of a comprehensive criminal background check. States have until Sept. 30, 2017, to implement this provision.
But the LePage administration has simply decided it won’t comply. The 205-page Child Care and Development Fund state plan prepared by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and submitted to the feds so Maine can receive its funding contains this statement: “Maine will not be implementing the fingerprint check as part of the background check program but will implement all other components.”
There’s no explanation given. It’s simply a refusal by the LePage administration to comply with part of a federal law — as if it’s OK to pick and choose certain laws to respect and others to ignore.
When child care providers and advocates later offered their public comments on the state plan, a number of them noticed this one-sentence statement and urged the LePage administration to reverse course and comply.
DHHS had this response: “The Department will not be requiring fingerprinting of all child care providers but will implement the remainder of the comprehensive background check requirements.”
The consequences of this decision are real both in terms of children’s safety and lost federal funding. A criminal background check that involves fingerprints is more comprehensive than one that doesn’t, offering an extra layer of assurance that a name-only check can’t. That’s why Maine has required fingerprinting for public school employees since 1999.
A fingerprint check can pick up on criminal records in any state under false names, married and maiden names, or names changed for any other reason, Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said. “The fingerprint is obviously never going to change,” he said.
The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee is considering legislation, LD 1689, that would require the fingerprinting. In addition to basic security, Morton said, the fingerprint check offers the opportunity for a child care facility to connect with local law enforcement and establish a relationship.
The federal law governing the Child Care and Development Block Grant makes it clear that Maine risks losing federal funds if it doesn’t implement the fingerprint check requirement. The law directs the federal government to withhold 5 percent of a state’s grant for noncompliance. Based on Maine’s $17.3 million grant this year, that could work out to an $864,000 loss in the next federal fiscal year.
Some 4,324 children received child care with the help of the block grant in 2015, and the state spent nearly its entire federal allocation. The grant also funds Maine DHHS’ child care center licensors.
So why is the LePage administration so opposed to such a basic measure to protect children’s safety?
First, the additional cost to child care providers. “When child care can be as expensive as college for Maine families, adding costs and regulations to the system is the wrong direction to take,” Nick Adolphsen, DHHS’ government relations and policy director, told Judiciary Committee members in written testimony last week regarding LD 1689. But law enforcement agencies across the state say they offer fingerprinting for local businesses at no cost or for a nominal fee. And is taking pains to ensure the safety of the youngest children really a burdensome regulation?
DHHS’ second reason is even more laughable. “[I]n the interest of civil liberties, when the state requires its citizens to submit their biometric information as a condition of employment, the reasons must be extraordinarily compelling,” Adolphsen’s testimony continues.
Why, then, do public school employees have to sacrifice their civil liberties in order to work with school-age children? Is it that safety of school-age children is a more “extraordinarily compelling” reason than protection of the state’s youngest? And speaking of liberties, it’s puzzling why the LePage administration would stand up for some abstract right of an adult to hide an out-of-state criminal record over the right of a young child to receive care in a safe environment.
Lawmakers need to act swiftly and take a stand for Maine’s youngest residents when their governor, disappointingly, will not.