Scott Peterson holding candles at vigil for then "missing" wife, Laci Peterson?
Sex offenders babysitting?
Sex offenders paid to baby-sit
TRIBUNE WATCHDOG State program subsidizing child care for poor families allows violent felons access to children
Cornelius Osborne may not seem like baby-sitting material.
He was convicted of raping two women. A succession of felonies, from robbery to failing to register as a sex offender, repeatedly sent him to prison, state records show.
But over more than two years, the state paid Osborne nearly $5,000 to baby-sit two children, before his latest conviction — for dealing drugs — put him back behind bars.
Osborne, of Chicago, wasn't the only sex offender paid by taxpayers to baby-sit, according to a Tribune investigation that found cases of convicted rapists, molesters and other violent felons given access to children over the past decade. The money comes from a $750 million-a-year program that subsidizes child care for more than 150,000 impoverished Illinoisfamilies.
The state Department of Human Services poorly vetted baby sitters for years — and when a 2009 law forced better checks, it took nearly 18 months to start them, the newspaper's investigation of the Child Care Assistance Program found.
Also, despite the reforms, the Tribune found that even now the state lacks safeguards to weed out baby sitters who watch children while living in the homes of sex offenders and other felons deemed too dangerous. Based on those findings, the state is vowing further reforms.
It's nearly impossible to determine just how many of the illegal baby-sitting arrangements the state has allowed. The newspaper found no cases where children were harmed, although privacy laws shield data needed to do an in-depth study.
Still, the Tribune's findings are frustrating to Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, who pushed for the reforms mandating better checks to weed out illegal arrangements.
"You're talking about not only the state sanctioning, but the state creating, an economic incentive for someone with a criminal record to be in a room with a kid," Murphy said. "That's frankly not a situation that I find acceptable."
Advocates such as Maria Whelan insist that the vast majority of baby sitters are aboveboard and that the 14-year-old federal-state program is key to helping parents work their way out of poverty. About half of the subsidies are in Cook County, where they are administered by the nonprofit Illinois Action for Children run by Whelan.
"This is a program that is absolutely essential if we are going to, with a straight face, tell families that if they work and if they continue to develop themselves, we can help them make a difference for their families," she said.
Program administrators have gotten national recognition for weeding out parents who don't qualify for the subsidies. But records show they've struggled for years to weed out disqualified baby sitters, such as Osborne.
The honor system
All it took for Osborne was a 2004 application mailed with the help of his sister, whose two children he would be paid to watch in her Englewood apartment.
She was able to pick the baby sitter, and she told the Tribune she didn't worry about her brother hurting the kids. But she did worry the state would object.
"I thought he would be rejected," she said, "but they didn't. I never got a call. They never asked about it."
They should have. The program has long barred those convicted of sex crimes and the most violent felonies. But Osborne wasn't spotted because of how the form was filled out. It asked him if he had been convicted of any crimes and, if so, which ones. His response showed "drug trafficking" — a crime that at the time didn't disqualify him.
He didn't mention the prison stints for rape, robbery and kidnapping, which would have.
And there's no record anyone checked further.
At the time, the state trusted Osborne and tens of thousands of other applicants to be honest.
The nonprofit's job was to forward the applicants' names to Human Services, which worked with the Department of Children and Family Services to screen them. But they checked only a database kept by state child-welfare caseworkers. And it doesn't list all convictions.
Osborne joined the ranks of more than 70,000 child care providers paid by the program — 60,000 of them unlicensed.
In Illinois, someone who watches four or more unrelated children needs a formal license, which requires the most extensive background check, including fingerprint-based searches of law enforcement databases
But those who watched three or fewer children were exempted from such checks, even if the state helped pay for the service. Those unlicensed providers watch about 40 percent of the children getting subsidies.
'Children at risk'
The issue increasingly became a topic in Cook County courtrooms, where defendants with long rap sheets mentioned their baby-sitting jobs during proceedings.
"That profoundly concerned me," said longtime Circuit Judge Nicholas Ford.
By 2008, judges asked the court's child-protective division how ex-cons could qualify to baby-sit for the state. Checking into it, the division's policy analyst, Larry Grazian, said he learned nobody ran full background checks on unlicensed baby sitters. So Grazian called Sen. Murphy, who pushed a law to require background checks.
Advocates such as Illinois Action for Children supported the move, at least for baby sitters who weren't related to the kids they watched. They argued it would be too invasive to extend it to grandmothers and other baby sitters watching relatives. Murphy said he agreed to the limit to get the law enacted in August 2009.
The mandate still took an additional 171/2 months to become practice — even as the state was alerted to sex offenders on its rolls a few months after the law was enacted.
As part of a routine, wide-ranging audit of Human Services, state auditors compared the addresses of state-paid baby sitters with the sex offender registry. They found two payments made that year to a registered sex offender at the offender's address. Also, 83 baby sitters lived at addresses where sex offenders were registered, according to the auditors' report.
Auditors called it a "significant deficiency."
"Failure to follow established department rules and policies has led to putting children at risk when receiving child care at certain providers," auditors said.
The audit didn't name the offenders, but one may have been Tremayne Huey, who was convicted in 2004 under an alias for having sex with an underage girl, according to court records. On two baby-sitting applications filed before the law took hold, prior convictions were left blank or denied, state records show.
Huey could not be located for an interview, but Human Services records show his address at homes in Blue Island and Chicago Heights — the same addresses where both his real name and alias had been listed on the state's sex offender registry. Still — even after the auditors' report — Huey kept getting checks.
He received nearly $4,800 from taxpayers for two stints as a baby sitter, the last one ending in March 2010, according to state records.
The state said it didn't fully begin checking the sex offender registries for the names of unlicensed baby sitters until September 2010 — 13 months after the law took hold — and only began full background checks on nonrelative baby sitters in February 2011.
The Department of Children and Family Services blamed the delay on legal hurdles and manpower shortages in an era when government is expected to do more with less.
"You can't keep adding water to the bucket and not expect that at some point it will overflow," said the agency's deputy director, Kendall Marlowe.
Meanwhile, people such as Ester L. Davis continued to be paid.
State records show he has been paid nearly $44,000 since 2005.
Along the way, Davis was convicted in 2008 of felony marijuana possession — a crime that program administrators said should have prevented him from being reapproved as a child-care provider under state rules.
Yet he continued to get payments through July 2010. He could not be located for comment; a warrant was issued for his arrest after he skipped court earlier this year on pending felony gun charges.
Advocates say more thorough checks are being done on longtime baby sitters — and those who live with them — as their cases come up for renewal, about every three to six months.
But those checks still rely on baby sitters being candid about who lives in the homes where they baby-sit.
On a sunny summer afternoon, a Tribune reporter rang the doorbell to a 11/2-story brick home in Bellwood.
It's the address where, since February, the state had paid Lemorial Westfield to watch three children.
It's also the address where Lemorial's 67-year-old husband, George, long has registered as a sex offender, convicted of sexually abusing a teen who had briefly lived with the couple.
The Westfields' door was answered by a 6-year-old girl whom the state was paying Lemorial to watch. The girl, a friend of the family, went to fetch George Westfield, who said his wife had stepped out briefly while he watched the girl.
This scenario isn't supposed to happen, according to long-standing state rules.
By law, a baby sitter can't watch children in a home with any residents who wouldn't pass the background checks.
Unlicensed baby sitters who use their homes are now required to list who lives with them on forms mailed to the state. But if baby sitters are not forthcoming, there are few mechanisms in place to catch them.
The Tribune found the Westfields by comparing baby sitters' addresses with the sex offender registry. Such checks have been done for several years by DCFS for its foster parents. Human Services had promised in June 2010 to "periodically" do the same thing for its baby sitters.
After being presented with the Tribune findings, Human Services said it will begin determining how best to check all baby sitters' addresses against the sex offender registry.
Beyond sex offenders — whose addresses are publicly available — there are no protocols to check harder-to-obtain parole and probation databases of other ex-offenders to see who may be living where children are being watched.
The Tribune compared baby sitter addresses with prison data on parolee addresses and found 126 baby sitters received checks this summer at Chicago-area addresses where parolees were living. Some of those arrangements may have been legal — Illinois law allows some felons, such as burglars, to watch children for the state or live in homes where they are watched.
Based on the Tribune findings, Human Services said it's exploring how it can do real-time checks of prison databases to weed out addresses of parolees. But it will be difficult to navigate different types of data systems.
In the meantime, examples of questionable cases have emerged in court.
Nobody stopped parolee Raheem Gray from moving in with his girlfriend, who was being paid by the state to baby-sit. That's despite Gray having been to prison for convictions on two gun and three drug cases, which should have barred state-paid baby-sitting in their South Austin neighborhood home.
Court records show Gray did move out last year. He was sent back to prison after a parole check at the couple's apartment found a gun stashed under a child's bed