Originally created 12/08/96

Background checks becoming common



By his own admission, Bill Battles is an alcoholic who has had death and serious-injury medical malpractice lawsuits filed against him and lost his licenses to practice medicine in Kentucky and Alabama.

The former surgeon had one lawsuit against him in Alabama settled out of court. He never responded to charges when his license to practice medicine was taken in Kentucky after a lawsuit there.

Dr. Battles currently works at Georgia Regional Hospital as a psychiatrist and worked at Medical College of Georgia Hospital before that.

Once again, Dr. Battles faces a lawsuit by a patient who contends he provided improper treatment and endangered his life at MCG.

"Over the years there have increasingly been tons of checks instituted to keep the public safe from impaired physicians," said Andrew Watry, executive director of the Composite State Board of Medical Examiners in Atlanta. The group polices physicians and decides every two years whether they are eligible for licenses to practice medicine by probing into the applicants' background.

Credential checks, pre-employment criminal background checks, fingerprinting, credit checks and drug tests are some methods that employers are using to increase workplace and public safety and reduce company liability.

Although more employers are doing criminal background checks nowadays, convicted criminals and dangerous people still get jobs working with the public.

Jerry Wayne Taylor shot a man several outside a Richmond County shopping center construction site in 1987. After being released from a mental institution, Mr. Taylor killed another man and then himself outside another Augusta business in April. He had been working at a local grocery store before he killed the second man and himself.

"Jerry was never able to take stress; he'd come apart," his mother, Betty Taylor, said during an interview after the shooting. "I was so happy when the people at the store took a chance on him and gave him a job."

The store that hired Mr. Taylor wouldn't say whether a background check was done before Mr. Taylor was hired.

Though many employers have the means to find out criminal backgrounds about their employees, illnesses and other things in applicants' backgrounds that might help an employer make a hiring decision are often not easily obtainable.

"The federal government doesn't allow the board (of medical examiners) to ask physicians if they have had alcohol or drug abuse problems," Mr. Watry said. "Chemical dependencies are thought of as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.S. Justice Department has sent the board letters threatening to prosecute the board if it asks such questions."

Therefore, citizens must hope doctors will be caught somehow before they endanger patients.

MCG officials would not comment on the lawsuit against Dr. Battles or whether they knew about Dr. Battles' background when they hired him.

Officials at Georgia Regional said they did know about his background.

"I've made mistakes. I wish I would have never touched the stuff (alcohol)," Dr. Battles said. "I was slow to realize the direct connection between all the job stress (as a surgeon) and my drinking, but I've been sober for 14 years now. I'm a good psychiatrist because I can relate to many of my patients' illnesses... The lawsuits are scams. When attorneys find out I'm a recovering alcoholic, they try to get money from the insurance companies."

Mr. Watry, of the state medical examiners board, said: "It's not uncommon for a doctor who has showed himself to be sober for more than two years to be licensed and working on probation even if they lost licenses in other states," Mr. Watry said.

As with the medical field, many other public and private employers have decided to find out more about their applicants' background before hiring them.

"In the past three to five years I've seen a noticeable increase of employers who have made it policy to ask for background checks," said Chief Deputy Sid Hatfield of Richmond County's Sheriff's Department.

Several years ago, an employee at the Georgia Youth Development Center assaulted another employee at work. When the attacker's criminal background was checked, his employers found out he had been convicted of at least one similar crime in the past, and he was fired. Such situations led the Department of Human Resources to institute its criminal background check policy in 1993, said Reuben Lasseter, personnel director for the department. The department hires many state employees for state agencies.

"It became apparent that many employees were not advising us of convictions of crimes when asked during the application procedure," Mr. Lasseter said.

Richmond County Board of Education has been checking criminal backgrounds since 1987. The checks are done on any employees, including food service workers, who supervise students.

Fingerprinting is included for certified employees, including teachers, principals, counselors and psychiatrists, who hold teaching certificates.

"Our hiring process is in-depth. Along with the criminal check, we do drug testing, look at their academic backgrounds and do a thorough check with past employers," said Pat Burau, the board's assistant superintendent of personnel.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation performs about 40,000 criminal background checks for about 800 public and private employers in the state at its Georgia Crime Information Center.

The employers take the fingerprints at their business or local police department and send them to the GBI with information identifying the employee and a fee of $15 per applicant. GBI runs the applicant's fingerprints through its fingerprint ID computer system, which lets them know whether the person has a criminal history, said Paul Heppner, GBI's deputy director.

"Fingerprints are taken when a criminal record is established and during each arrest, so if a person is arrested in Georgia they will have a criminal record," he said.

All judgments after arrests, including acquittals, convictions and verdicts involving a person's mental state at the time of a crime, are recorded in the histories, Mr. Heppner said.

The records are sent back to employers.

Richmond County Sheriff's Department performs criminal background checks for more than 100 employers and hundreds of individuals. Many of the employers interviewed said that the background checks are working and that it's better to have them than not to have them. Police agree.

Officials say the checks are better than nothing but do have shortfalls. Mental and medical backgrounds are not usually included because of laws regarding patient confidentiality and because the checks only look for criminal histories. Sometimes, relatives or friends get people jobs, bypassing the background check system.

That's what happened in the case of Medi-cab, a company that transports handicapped people. The company does not have background checks. Last year, a man was fired after many of the company's clients claimed the man was sexually battering them in the cab, said Cheryl Blackwelder, human resources director of Medi-cab and Richmond Ambulance Services.

"He was hired because he was the husband of an employee," Ms. Blackwelder said.

Because drivers and technicians must be licensed, criminal checks for ambulance workers are not performed at the company unless something comes up that prompts an investigation. License checks are conducted, and personal references and employers are contacted.

"We feel like they wouldn't have a license if they had a criminal history when they applied for their license," Ms. Blackwelder said.

Other problems with criminal background checks are that the companies aren't always able to get the information back in a timely manner and not everyone uses the same computer system for checks.

"The GBI is only allowed to check criminal backgrounds in the state of Georgia because laws differ in every state about what information can be given on criminal backgrounds. So if someone has been convicted of a crime in another state it won't show up," Mr. Heppner said.

There are cases when a job requires a national criminal background check. That is conducted by the FBI's National Crime Information Network for a fee of $24.

Although employees may be weeded out by the checks, many employers interviewed stressed that having a criminal background in many cases does not automatically disqualify applicants from being hired.

"The checks should serve as information. Each case should be evaluated individually, and the job they're doing should be looked at with their criminal background," said Ed Burr, vice president of legal affairs at University Hospital.

And many employers stressed that an employee is innocent until proved guilty and that an arrest and complaints don't mean the person is guilty.

Sometimes the checks can backfire and cause problems for innocent applicants when incorrect data are recorded, Mr. Burr said.

"The disadvantage of doing a name search is that sometimes you have problems when people have common names or when someone uses someone else's ID. With fingerprint searches, that's almost impossible because no two fingerprints are the same," Mr. Heppner said.

And it's often difficult for some people to have arrests removed from their records when they are not convicted, Mr. Burr said.

"The GBI will almost never remove an arrest that's proven to be due to fraud because sometimes people will use the same person's ID over and over," Mr. Heppner said. It will issue a certificate saying the person never committed the crime.

Only law enforcement agencies have access to information for criminal background checks, Mr. Heppner said.

"A criminal background check is only as good as the day you do it. An employee could go out and commit a crime the next day," Mr. Burr said. "Many people, mostly juveniles, have convictions expunged from their records, and that won't show up."