Progressive Christian Academy’s troubles spur possible new day care rules

mlee@macon.comFebruary 13, 2013 

ATLANTA -- A bill in the state Legislature would require nationwide criminal background checks on child day care center employees, such as the Florida felon found in charge of Macon’s Progressive Christian Academy.

The state shut down the academy in November because it didn’t have a license. Its manager, Christina Hawkins, also was found to be a Florida felon wanted for skipping out on her probation. Hawkins was known as Christina Perera in Florida Department of Corrections records.

“This would capture somebody like that,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who is sponsoring the bill in the state House of Representatives. Peake said he was asked to introduce the bill because of the scandal at Progressive Christian Academy.

Right now, only day care directors must submit their fingerprints to the Georgia Crime Information Center and to an FBI national criminal record check. The Progressive Christian Academy manager was taken on as an employee, so she only had her name checked against a list of Georgia criminals. Felons are not supposed to work at day care centers.

Peake’s bill would subject all day care employees to national and state fingerprint checks starting in January 2014. That would catch criminal backgrounds, including sex offenses, in all states.

“At the national level, from the federal perspective as well as the national organizations, they encourage this,” said Ray Higgins, deputy commissioner for finance and administration at Bright from the Start, the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning’s agency in charge of overseeing child day cares. His agency developed the bill that would apply to some 6,400 child care programs statewide.

“I think this would be a great step forward for improving child safety,” Higgins said.

Early Care and Learning would be in charge of enforcement, just as it is now.

“We would be moving in the direction that puts us more on par with what other states are doing” if the bill passes, said Carolyn Salvador, the executive director of the trade group Georgia Child Care Association.

She put Georgia among about one-third of states that do not already require such national fingerprint checks.

The total cost of state and federal testing would be about $50 per employee. The bill is silent on who would pay for it. The day care center could pay the fee itself or pass the cost along to the employee.

The bill would give child care centers until 2017 to test existing employees.

It’s not yet clear if the fingerprinting could take place at any sheriff’s office with ink or if the applicant must find an agency with a Livescan device, an electronic fingerprinting machine. In rural areas, that could be up to 30 miles away.

New hires would get a grace period of a yet-to-be-determined length to be fingerprinted. They would still be subject to the immediate name check against Georgia records.

The bill would not apply to so-called “exempt” day care centers, generally a reference to public and private K-12 schools that offer some supervision before or after school.

Peake is optimistic about the bill’s chances of passing, saying two of Gov. Nathan Deal’s floor leaders, who push bills the governor likes, already have signed it.

He expects it will be published Thursday.

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