Job applicants working with vulnerable populations under programs run by the state Department of Human Services could soon face more scrutiny.

People applying for state jobs in Hawaii that put them in close proximity to minors and vulnerable adults would have to undergo more formal scrutiny, per a new bill being discussed in the Legislature. 

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That could include national background checks as part of these efforts to avoid hiring people unfit for those types of public jobs. 

“We’ve got to make extra sure that the supervisors, the coaches, the managers, the staff were not charged with murder or rape,” Rep. John Mizuno, who introduced House Bill 777. “You think it would be reasonable to ask that, but sometimes you need a law.” 

HB 777 would require the state Department of Human Services to conduct much broader background checks including obtaining fingerprints, searching through criminal histories and looking into past employers for their applicants.

As an example of how the system works now, the DHS has oversight of the state’s early education services, community-based services, and some nonprofit services including those providing guidance to kids. But it also has been legally limited in its background checks of applicants to state-only databases, relying on job applicants to self-disclose any other convictions. 

The current pre-employment background clearance process for the DHS includes a name-based criminal history record check through the Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center

Rep John Mizuno Chair Health and Human Services Comm Briefing on Homeless solutions.
Rep. John Mizuno is proposing a bill that would require greater scrutiny of some job applicants. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

The director of the department, Cathy Betts, testified in support of HB 777 and said that the public — namely those receiving child welfare, child protective, extended foster care and higher education services from her office — will benefit from the department’s ability to conduct such checks. 

HB777 will authorize state agencies, such as the DHS, to develop procedures for obtaining verifiable information regarding the criminal history of any person who is employed or seeking employment. 

It will allow the DHS to terminate or deny employment to any current or prospective employee if the department finds that the employee or contractor poses a risk. 

Betts also wrote that the additional procedures proposed by this bill may cause a delay in hiring prospective employees. The Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center may also experience an increased demand for services by individuals, and the DHS budget request would need to be updated to include adding one more permanent full-time position to conduct said background checks, with the necessary funds to support the position in perpetuity.

Bett’s written testimony doesn’t have an amount for how much that position could cost.

Mizuno said that better background checks could benefit not only minors but also programs serving elderly residents in care homes. But he acknowledged that funding may still be an issue.

“Funding (of legislation) is always an issue; money is always an issue,” Mizuno said. “Many times funding is the issue that could stop a good policy from being implemented in the law.” 

HB 777 needs to clear the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee next. It hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing.

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