Sex offenders paid by state of Illinois to babysit children

theGRIO REPORT - The money to pay these felons came from a $750 million-a-year subsidy program that helps over 150,000 poor families throughout the state of Illinois...

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DETROIT — For the last 14 years, convicted violent felons have been serving as babysitters and child care professionals in Chicago and throughout Illinois. Even worse, the felons have been paid by the state through a government subsidy program meant to help poor families that cannot afford childcare.

According to last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, Cornelius Osborne, who was convicted of a multitude of felonies including two rapes, kidnapping, robbery, and failing to register as a sex offender, was paid nearly $5,000 over a two-year span by the state before being convicted of drug trafficking. Illinois taxpayers footed the bill for Osborne and many others.

The money to pay these felons came from a $750 million-a-year subsidy program that helps over 150,000 poor families throughout the state of Illinois. There are similar programs in Georgia, North Carolina, South Dakota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The problems in Illinois stemmed from years of the state’s Department of Human Services poorly screening — or in some cases, not screening — candidates.

In the case of Osborne, it was his sister that signed him up for the program. She wanted her brother to be paid by the state to watch her kids — the applicants can pick the babysitter — but she figured that as soon as the application reached the department of Human Services, they would take one look at his criminal history and reject the application on site. It was not.

“I thought he would be rejected,” she told the Tribune. “I never got a call. They never asked about it.” When the application was filled out, Osborne acknowledged that he had a prior drug conviction, which did not disqualify him from being a babysitter.

The key is that he made a point to leave out the rape, kidnapping, and robbery convictions that would have immediately disqualified him. No further background check was performed and it appeared that the program was working on essentially the honor system.

Similar measures are taken in most states in terms of childcare and foster parenting, where extensive checks of criminal records are vital to approval of caring for a child. The problems in Illinois, while they have not led to any documented cases of children being harmed, are more of a deviation from the norm.

Aisha Grier, a Chicago native and social worker with the state of Michigan, helps in vetting families who are candidates for foster care. The process of applying to become a foster parent in Michigan is very lengthy and comprehensive.

“There’s an orientation that gives an overview of the foster care process and 16 hours of comprehensive training called ‘Pride Training’,” Grier said. “Once they have completed that, if they decide that they want to go through with the process, then the real fun starts.

“We need to have a full background check done. We come out to their home and make sure their house is physically up to code. We assess everyone that lives in their house — and when I say we assess them, I mean we asses them from birth to where they are now — their childhood, their job history, relationship history, everything.”

As for those who feel the need to try to conceal their past: “If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to talk about your past or doesn’t like people in your business, (foster care) is not for you.”

The process is nearly identical in terms of childcare. For 2009-2010, the state of Michigan allocated over $355 Million to childcare funds. The exhaustive application process even delves into the income of applicants to see if they qualify.

In Illinois, particularly Cook County where nearly half of the subsidies are given out, there has been a distinct flaw in the process. The program has, by all accounts, done a good job sniffing out bad parents, but dropped the ball on babysitters and caregivers.

“This is a program that is absolutely essential if we are going to, with a straight face, tell families that if they work and if they continue to develop themselves, we can help them make a difference for their families,” said Maria Whelan, the head of Illinois Action for Children, the nonprofit organization that has paid out the subsidy since 1997.

The miscommunication occurred when IAC sent the applicant names to DHS, who worked with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to screen them out. What happened? DHS checked only a database kept by state child-welfare workers that did not list all convictions.

In Michigan, there is no differentiation between violent and non-violent felonies in terms of qualifying to be a babysitter or foster parent. Anything worse than parking tickets or a moving violation can get your case rejected.

“There are certain crimes that if you’ve been convicted of them, you are automatically rejected,” Grier said. “Even the minor misdemeanors are handled on a case-by-case basis. How long ago did it occur? Was it a one-time thing? If you don’t meet the housing requirements — you don’t have enough space — that will rule you out.”

“We’ll be here all day listing everything that will rule you out (in Michigan).”

The Tribune reported that it became an issue when in Cook County courtrooms, defendants with lengthy records were talking about their baby-sitting jobs during proceedings. In terms of the people who take care of children, it is a very disheartening reality to know that convicted felons can be in contact with their children.

The Tribune report also showed that there were no full background checks given at all by the organization. It was so bad that the Illinois State Senate had to enact a law require full background checks in 2009. What followed was an audit that compared the addresses of state-paid baby sitters with the sex offender registry.

They found two payments made that year to a registered sex offender at the offender’s address. Plus, 83 babysitters lived at addresses where sex offenders were registered.

One offender was convicted in 2004 under an alias for having sex with an underage girl, according to court records. On two baby-sitting applications filed before the law took hold, prior convictions were left blank or denied, state records show.

What’s worse is even after the audit the offender kept getting checks. He received nearly $4,800 from taxpayers for two stints as a baby sitter, the last one ending in March 2010, according to state records.

The state said it didn’t fully begin checking the sex offender registries for the names of unlicensed baby sitters until September 2010

In other states, much more stringent background checks have existed for years.

”(In Michigan) we’re pretty stringent with you,” Grier said. “You have to get fingerprinted before we even start working with you. When we get the results back, we ask you up front do you have any kind of criminal history whatsoever, juvenile or adult.

“Sometimes, people think they can’t tell us, but it’s fingerprinted through the FBI and all that stuff comes up.”

The state of Illinois feels that they have finally begun to weed out the loophole in the system. It took nearly 18 months for the safeguards to fall into place and the money that was paid out to the offenders will likely not be paid back.

The controversy has kept other state’s agencies on their toes. Fear of something bad happening to a child under the care of a convicted sex offender has helped improve communication between agencies and the state government. Taking someone’s word for it is not good enough.

“I haven’t heard of (the state of Michigan) going against our recommendations,” Grier said. “If we have concerns, they’re legitimate. We have to have a documented reason that they will not be a good foster parent.”

Grier, who is also a mother, has had to deal with child care issues of her own and worries about her child’s safety help her understand how important her job is as a social worker.

“If this were your child going into foster care, wouldn’t you want to know everything there is to know about this family?”