New background checks hurt experienced recovery workers

By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer

Unforeseen consequences of a state law designed to protect vulnerable citizens dependent on residential care is impacting people’s abilities to find a job in social work. The negative impact is spurring the SEIU and social service advocates to have the law changed.

House Bill 2442 makes it illegal for organizations that provide residential care treatment to the elderly, disabled, adults in foster care, and the mentally ill to employ people who have committed certain crimes. The organizations affected by the law are limited to those that receive state funding.

In addition to obvious serious crimes, including murder, sexual assault, rape, violent assault, and sex crimes, the law also prevents people with drug-related convictions within the past 10 years from working in those settings.

The law took effect for people hired on or after July 28, 2009. It requires stronger background checks to be given to people applying for jobs at residential treatment centers. The law also applies to people who already work in residential treatment centers but are attempting to transfer to a different facility or applying for a different job within the same organization.

HB 2442 was sponsored by Rep. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis).

The intention of the law is to protect vulnerable people from potential harm. But labor and social service advocates say the law is stopping people from working in a field they are qualified to work in — and relate to personally — and could potentially harm the efficacy of treatment programs.

“Sometimes their backgrounds make them better providers,” says Megan Moyer, the senior political organizer for SEIU local 503, the labor union representing social workers. “They are exactly the right person to do that job because of their experience.”

Moyer says the SEIU is working with various state agencies and other groups to have the law changed in the 2011 legislative session. She says it isn’t possible to have the entire law revoked and also thinks that is not necessarily reasonable. Instead, Moyer hopes a compromise is struck so that the “right balance” is found between protecting vulnerable people in care settings while still allowing qualified people to work in care settings.

One care setting that has been affected by the law and most concerns people is alcohol and drug addiction treatment facilities. Because many social services provide both drug and mental health treatment in their programs, employees of drug treatment programs also would have been subject to the rigorous background checks the law requires.

Erik Martin, policy and legislative liaison for the Addiction Counselor Certification Board of Oregon (ACCBO) says the effect the law would have on drug treatment programs “slipped under the radar.”

“People didn’t understand what impact it was going to have,” he says.

The Addictions and Mental Health Division of Oregon’s Department of Human Services obtained a temporary waiver from the law that is effective until July 2011. The waiver exempts drug treatment programs from the law. (It is worth noting that the director of the Addiction and Mental Health Division is Richard Harris, who for many years was the executive director of Central City Concern, a social-service agency providing low-income housing, mental health and addictions treatment).

Martin says the Division is “working on a permanent fix.”

Ed Blackburn, Central City Concern’s executive director, says if a permanent fix is not found, the law would have a “devastating effect” on the efficacy of some Central City Concern’s programs.

Blackburn estimates that Central City Concern employs 560 people, and says “over half” of those people have histories of homelessness, drug addiction, and committing crimes. “Their involvement in Central City Concern effects the whole character of our organization,” Blackburn says. “They have a very high sense of mission…(and) are very successful in engaging people in services.”

Blackburn points to Central City Concern’s Peer Mentor Program as an example of how people working in addictions treatment with criminal backgrounds provide better care to people in treatment.

The Peer Mentor Program began in 1999 and connects people in Central City Concern’s drug and alcohol treatment program with mentors — people who are in recovery from drug addiction themselves. The mentors help the person in treatment stick to a tough regimen of medical and mental health treatment, case management and group therapy, and are available during times of crisis and doubt.

It is an expertise, Blackburn says, that doesn’t necessarily come from “taking classes or reading books.”

“They are able to empathize and relate to people with addiction disorders,” Martin says.

And in Central City Concern’s experience, it has paid off. The Recovery Mentor Program has had remarkable success. In 2007, 77 people exited the program and 73 percent of those people, 56 individuals, successfully completed their treatment.

Blackburn credits the program’s success solely to the mentors and the fact that they are all in recovery themselves.

“(They) are much more effective in encouraging them and keeping them engaged,” Blackburn says. “They’re living proof right in front of your eyes that you can radically improve your life for the better.”

Martin says it is almost certain that alcohol and drug treatment programs will be permanently exempted from the law when the state Legislature meets in 2011. Moyer says a coalition of the SEIU and other groups is currently forming to work with legislators and the Department of Human Services when the Legislature is in session. Though Blackburn recognizes a solution most likely will happen, he — as well as other treatment providers — are ready to go to bat if the law remains the same and the Division of Addiction and Mental Health’s waiver expires.

“We would do everything we can to stop (this law) from being implemented,” Blackburn says. “I respect the intent of the legislation, but it is just misconceived.”

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