HHS06 Foster Care Criminal Background Checks


Before someone can adopt a foster child, the government must perform a background check to ensure that the prospective parent does not have a criminal history. Currently, this is often done by counties, which each maintain separate databases of approved individuals. Because the county databases are not linked, people who have already passed a background check in one county must be checked again before they can care for a foster child in another county. All of these checks are paid for by the state.


The Department of Social Services (DSS) is responsible for licensing people who want to provide foster care to children and for ensuring that homes are safe. [1] However, DSS can contract with counties to perform this licensing function. [2] Forty-two of 58 counties, containing about 800 foster homes, have entered into such a contract with DSS. [3]

Criminal background checks

A part of the foster parent licensing function requires that a criminal background check must be conducted on each prospective foster parent and person who will be interacting with the child. About 13,500 criminal background checks were performed during Fiscal Year 2002– 2003. [4] Either DSS or the county, if under contract with DSS, is required to obtain the criminal background checks. [5] Prospective foster parents and anyone else who will have contact with a foster child must provide two sets of fingerprints to the Department of Justice (DOJ); one set is to perform a state record check and one set is to perform a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) national check. [6] In addition to the check of the person’s criminal history, DOJ checks the Child Abuse Registry and reports to DSS for investigation of any prior complaints. [7] Responses from the state must be received, identified criminal records cleared, and a Child Abuse Registry cleared before a license for the care of foster children can be issued. [8] The same clearances are required of a person living in a foster home or providing child care to a foster child. [9]

When DSS performs a background check of an individual living in a county not under contract, that individual, once approved, is licensed to care for foster children anywhere in the state. [10] In contrast, if an individual is approved by a county under DSS contract, he or she is licensed to care for foster children only in that county. And, because county computer systems are not linked and because counties cannot disclose confidential information, counties cannot readily determine if a prospective foster parent has already gone through a background check in another county. As a result, people who are licensed to be a foster parent by a county under contract with DSS must get multiple background checks, potentially for each county under DSS contract.

Multiple background checks, duplicate costs

Multiple background checks are a direct budgetary cost to the state, because the state is responsible for reimbursing the county and DOJ for the costs. [11] In addition, duplicate background checks make it harder for foster parents to care for some of California’s most needy foster children. A foster parent relocating to another county must wait for approval from the new county. While the approval is pending the child must be transferred to another foster parent, disrupting the lives of both parent and child. It is also harder for foster parents to get temporary child care from a family member or friend, since the new caregiver may not have a background check from the right county. [12] Moreover, this system makes it harder for a foster child to permanently move in with a relative because it requires the relative to pass a background check in both the county where the relative lives and the county where the child lives. [13]

Foster parents and associations complain about the inconvenience and delays associated with duplicate fingerprinting. [14] Parents must wait for an individual to be cleared before allowing contact with a child notwithstanding a current clearance. The state and county appear inflexible and bureaucratic in requiring the second background check after a person has already been cleared, and this practice provides no additional safeguard. While it may seem simple for counties to share information with each other, there are a number of valid reasons why they do not. Sharing information might violate restrictions on the confidentiality of criminal background records. [15] Also, counties arguably need to conduct new background checks to make sure that they are notified by DOJ of any subsequent arrests.


The Health and Human Services Agency, or its successor, should modify existing county foster care licensing contracts to remove the responsibility to conduct criminal background checks, and make the necessary arrangements to conduct the background checks by the state. In addition, the HHS or its successor should review for other opportunities to take over criminal background checks required for other programs, such as for county-licensed child care.

Fiscal Impact

This proposal would have two offsetting fiscal impacts. It would result in a savings of funds currently provided to the county to conduct the background checks of $195,000 and an unknown budgetary savings because the number of background checks would be reduced as duplicate checks were eliminated. It would also result in a cost for new staff, including one associate governmental program analyst, a part-time office technician, and one special investigator at a total cost of $195,000. [16]

Other Funds (dollars in thousands)

Fiscal Year Savings Costs Net Savings (Costs) Change in PYs
2004–05 $0 $0 $0 0
2005–06 $195 $195 $0 2.5
2006–07 $195 $195 $0 2.5
2007–08 $195 $195 $0 2.5
2008–09 $195 $195 $0 2.5

Note: The dollars and PYs for each year in the above chart reflect the total change for that year from 2003-2004 expenditures, revenues and PYs.


[1] Health & S. C. 1501.
[2] Health & S. C. 1511.
[3] Interview with Gary Levenson Palmer, bureau chief, Community Care Licensing Administrative Support Bureau, Sacramento, California (June 9, 2004). California LIC 181 “Licensing of Facilities for Children, Monthly Statistical Report.”
[4] E-mail from Tina Medich, assistant bureau chief, Department of Justice, Sacramento, California, to California Performance Review (June 9, 2004).
[5] Health & S. C. 1522.
[6] Health & S. C. 1522(a)(5).
[7] Health & S. C. 1522.1.
[8] Health & S. C. 1522.
[9] Health & S. C. 1522.
[10] Interview with Bill Jordan, chief, Caregiver Background Check Bureau, Department of Social Services, Community Care Licensing Division, Sacramento, California (May 18, 2004).
[11] In some counties, the county requires the person to pay for the Federal Bureau of Investigation check and the child abuse index check, about $39.00. Interview with Gary Levenson Palmer, bureau chief, Community Care Licensing Administrative Support Bureau, Sacramento, California (June 9, 2004). The Department of Justice may charge a fee to cover its costs pursuant to Health & S. C. 1522.03.
[12] Interview with Yolo County foster parents, Woodland, California (May 3, 2004).
[13] Interview with Dana Sugiyama, Social Worker III, Santa Clara County, Santa Clara, California (April 29, 2004).
[14 Interview with Yolo County foster parents, Woodland, California (May 3, 2004); interview with Hilda Navarro, president of Hispanic Foster Parents Association of Sacramento, Sacramento, California (April 24, 2004); interview with Cora Pearson, state foster parent association president, Los Angeles, California (June 3, 2004).
[15] Pen. C. 11077.
[16] Interview with Gary Levenson Palmer, bureau chief, Community Care Licensing Administrative Support Bureau, California Department of Social Services, Sacramento, California (June 9, 2004).