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Change urged in law barring former offenders from nursing home jobs

Posted: Tuesday, May 07, 2002

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- Laura Garvey takes pride in her transformation into a responsible adult since she was convicted of burglary for breaking into a paint store in 1979.

But she is frustrated that a state law intended to protect the elderly from care-giver abuse and neglect does not consider her responsible enough to work in the health-care field.

Garvey, a 41-year-old part-time banquet waitress, cannot enroll in nursing school to become a licensed practical nurse because of the Older Adults Protective Services Act.

''This offense happened almost a quarter of a century ago. I paid my debt, served my time, and I proved myself a valuable person to my community and to my church,'' Garvey recently told the House Aging and Older Adult Services Committee.

''The lifetime ban has been like a noose around my neck, slowly choking my dreams,'' she said.

In December, the state Common-wealth Court declared the law unconstitutional because a provision banning former criminals from working in nursing homes provides no exceptions for anyone who has long since reformed.

The law was originally enacted in 1987 and amended 10 years later to make caregiver jobs off-limits for people with certain criminal records, including drug felonies or two or more theft misdemeanors.

The state attorney general's office has appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, arguing that the ban is needed to protect senior citizens who cannot protect themselves.

Representatives of nursing homes and other health care services also agreed that legislators should reconsider the lifetime ban on employment and apply it only to the most serious crimes, such as murder.

The law should offer health care providers flexibility to disregard convictions for nonviolent crimes in the hiring process, said Brinda Carroll Penyak, director of governmental relations for the Pennsylvania Health Care Association. Those offenses have no bearing on whether prospective employees can be trusted to care for the elderly, she said.

Although ex-offenders employed in nursing homes when the law was amended were allowed to keep their jobs, they cannot leave their positions to work at other health care facilities. Jeff Hunsicker, political program coordinator for a Service Employees International Union district that represents 23,000 health care workers, said those employees should be allowed to change jobs.

''It makes no sense that an employee is not considered a risk to older adults as long as they remain with the same employer, but is considered a risk if they seek employment at a facility across the street,'' Hunsicker said.

The state Department of Aging is considering its own legislative recommendations that would tailor the length of a ban to the severity of a criminal's offense, but no proposal has been outlined yet, Secretary Richard Browdie said.

''We're trying to address the notion that there should be a relationship between the crime and the punishment, and that rehabilitation is possible,'' Browdie said. ''But we need a balance between responding to the needs of individuals seeking employment and protecting elderly residents.''

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On the Net:

Pennsylvania Department of Aging: http://www.aging.state.pa.us



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