Share story

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities failed to complete some required background checks on caregivers, according to a state audit released Wednesday.

The comptroller’s audit sampled 60 of 178 employees hired from June 2013 through June 2016 who directly care for intellectually disabled people, helping them bathe, use the bathroom, eat, take medicine and perform other tasks.

The department said it has started obtaining the missing background checks, and one regional office has been checking the registries, just not documenting it. Department spokeswoman Cara Kumari said none of the employees had a background that would have excluded them from employment.

The missing checks include 16 sex offender searches; 11 for Tennessee’s abuse registry; 19 for felony offenses; 25 for exclusions from federally funded health care programs; and 11 for abuse, neglect and exploitation.

“The department has a duty to ensure that it hires only suitable applicants to provide care for individuals enrolled in its services,” auditors wrote. “By not following state law or internal policy, the department potentially jeopardizes the safety of this vulnerable population.”

Other employees underwent background checks after they began working, the audit says. The department said employees were aware of the required checks, but not all of them knew they had to be completed before employment.

Five employees didn’t have criminal background checks before starting work, including four hired before a new background check policy. The other was checked three days after being hired.

The comptroller’s office performed some missing checks and found no employee issues.

Additionally, auditors found that 42 employees didn’t undergo checks for work records, references, academic records, and professional licenses and certifications before they began working.

Some background checks were similarly unavailable for volunteers, the audit found.

The audit also took issue with how the department has set up an exemption for criminal background checks for providers, which seeks to follow federal guidance in 2012 that says an employer’s use of criminal history in the hiring process can, at times, violate civil rights protections.

The audit found two provider employees were approved for exemptions with previously undisclosed felony convictions on their records: one for possession of methamphetamine with intent to sell and failure to appear in court; and the other for evading arrest.

The department said only three issues within 218 approved exemptions were found, and it’s the provider’s obligation to check abuse, sex offender, felony and other registries. Auditors responded that it wouldn’t be an undue burden for the department to double-check only employees seeking exemptions.

A department spokeswoman touted achievements, including resolving two lawsuits over subpar conditions: one by the U.S. Justice Department in 1992 that was resolved in 2013; and another in 1995 that was resolved in 2015. All of the state-run large institutions have been closed, including the two targeted in the lawsuits.

“With the tireless and, at times, all-consuming work to exit litigation behind us, the department can now realign its resources to better focus on monitoring and reviewing the implementation of internal processes in order to provide the best services possible for people in Tennessee,” Kumari said.

The report, running beyond 200 pages, outlined more than a dozen issues for the department, from a critical shortage of caregivers to the department’s lack of timely reviews of deaths.