Stronger Background Checks for Childcare Workers Needed, Says Oregon Audit

An Oregon state audit released June 4 revealed a plethora of issues within the state’s child care system, including weak, inconsistent background checks, high cost for care, and a lack of availability and access to care for Oregon families.   

With over 10,000 cases of child abuse in Oregon per year, with almost half under the age of six, proper child care is a legitimate concern – though most abuse is committed by family members, a small portion is committed by child care workers.  

Abuse in childcare facilities: The report notes “ODE has confirmed receiving hundreds of complaints annually against licensed child care providers on issues such as physical harm to a child, safety risks for children, and unsanitary conditions. While it is uncommon, OCC has also reported 10 children have died in Oregon licensed child care settings from 2011 to 2018, with at least one due to child neglect. Unfortunately, more incidents of child abuse and neglect likely have gone unreported to authorities.”  

The Oregon Secretary of State Audits Division found, for one, that though most child care workers do not have criminal convictions, the Oregon Department of Education’s Office of Child Care (OCC) and the Department of Human Services’ Background Check Unit (BCU) have previously approved individuals with criminal histories related to child abuse and/or neglect.   

Part of the problem with the current system, according to the audit, is that Oregon does not make it clear which criminal backgrounds are allowed for child care workers. According to the report, “OCC and BCU have varying interpretations and inconsistencies in screening child care providers and do not consider some convictions automatically disqualifying, even when the state has deemed it so for other professions involving children.  

Another issue is that background checks for child care workers are not as strict as one would expect. Because of some allowances given by the state, individuals can be approved for child care work even when they have a criminal history of child abuse and neglect.   

Oregon is one of the only states to have several agencies perform background checks, which has led to inconsistencies across the state on who is allowed to work in child care  

Oregon families already struggle to find any child care due to cost and availability, and this audit now raises questions about how safe some child care staff are around children.   

Oregon lacks available childcare options, it’s a desert: The state of Oregon is actually considered a child care desert. According to the audit, a child care desert is defined by “a community with more than three children for every single licensed child care slot.” A 2019 OSU study found that “On average, Oregon has at least eight infants and toddlers for a single child care slot, and there are at least three preschool-age children for a single child care slot in 25 counties.  

It’s too expensive: On top of inadequate access, families also struggle with the expense of child care costs. The audit reported that Oregon is in the top ten least affordable states for infant, toddler, and 4-year-old care. The annual average price of care for an infant was $13,500 and over $12,600 for a toddler in an Oregon-licensed care center.   

Employment-Related Day Care program helps with some of the costs associated with child care for low-income families, but the audit found that “Oregon still has among the highest parent co-pays in the nation, which can leave low-income families spending as much as 30% of their income on child care.  

The audit recommends changes: The audit recommends that Oregon begin only having one state agency perform background checks, more consistent rules for qualifications of child care workers from the OCC and BCU, and allow police to be more proactive in sending DHS information regarding sex offenders, among five other suggestions related to providing better, safer child care.   

All agencies involved agree with the changes that need to be made.   

By Cara Nixon