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Spurred by concern that criminals are landing jobs working with frail and elderly residents, Minnesota is poised to begin requiring fingerprint background checks for tens of thousands of workers who care for the state's most vulnerable residents.

Starting in October, the Department of Human Services (DHS) will require that all newly hired employees who care for the elderly, disabled and other vulnerable groups be fingerprinted and photographed at designated stations before they start work.

The legislation, which cleared the House last week, passed the Senate on Monday and awaits Gov. Mark Dayton's signature.

DHS has conducted criminal background checks on most groups of caregivers since 1991, but the fingerprinting effort is unprecedented in scale and the largest expansion of state screening in more than 20 years.

Over time, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people who currently work in child-care centers, nursing homes, mental hospitals and other state-licensed programs will undergo the heightened scrutiny.

While the legislation has been criticized by civil liberties advocates, who say photos and fingerprinting are tantamount to treating caregivers like arrested criminals, state officials say Minnesota's current system of background checks is severely flawed.

DHS now conducts background checks only when caregivers are hired or switch jobs, which means that a serious crime can go undetected so long as a caregiver sticks to one employer. Moreover, the system is prone to error because criminal checks are based on names and dates of birth, which can be forged or changed.

Last fall, the Star Tribune reported that licensed nurses in Minnesota can practice for years despite histories of criminal convictions, including drug thefts that put patients at risk of harm.

The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension estimates that DHS fails to detect about 2,500 criminal records a year, which represents about 1 percent of the agency's 250,000 annual background checks.

"Even a 1 percent error rate is too high," said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park.

"We have to remember that the reason that DHS licenses these folks is that they work with our most vulnerable populations — with children and people in nursing homes — and the cost of error can be quite significant."

Rapid check of court records

The fingerprinting effort is just one piece of a broader set of background testing enhancements passed by the 2014 Legislature.

In addition, DHS will begin to cross-check its database of caregivers with the Minnesota Court Information System, or MNCIS, through a new automated system. As a result, DHS will automatically be notified if a caregiver is convicted of a crime that would under state law disqualify the person from direct contact with vulnerable people.

Within hours, officials say, the system would detect if a person working at a child-care center has been convicted of criminal sexual conduct or if a person at a chemical treatment center has been convicted of a drug-related offense.

The automated system may also cut down on costly and duplicative background checks. Some caregivers have undergone dozens of background checks over their careers, as they shift jobs. Under the reforms, employers could simply log into an online system operated by DHS to see if a screening has already been done and the candidate could start work immediately. According to DHS records, one person has undergone 124 background checks.

Under the new system, the state "will absolutely know" when someone has been convicted of a new crime in Minnesota, said Jerry Kerber, inspector general for DHS.

The automated system should also speed up hiring for state-licensed programs. Currently, care providers sometimes have to wait weeks or months for DHS to complete a background check, particularly in cases where there is confusion over names or dates of birth. "We will be able to zip right through these," Kerber said.

The system will be paid for with a $3 million grant from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. At least 18 other states have implemented a similar system.

Still, it remains to be seen how caregivers will react to the regimen of having to be fingerprinted. In October, DHS plans to have about 50 fingerprinting stations set up across Minnesota. The stations will be spread out geographically, so that no single caregiver will have to drive more than 40 miles to get fingerprinted.

Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, called the statewide fingerprinting effort a waste of public money. Somewhat sarcastically, Samuelson questioned why the state was creating its own fingerprint stations rather than relying on local police.

"Why don't we just take them down to the [police] precincts and just book them?" Samuelson said. "They are already well suited to take mug shots and fingerprints."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres