United States: New Child Care Background Check Bill Leaves More Questions Than Answers

Seyfarth Synopsis: Background screening companies that provide background checks to online child care job posting services in California may face increased civil liability as they seek to comply with new Assembly Bill No. 2036.

Parents want to employ only the most qualified individuals to watch over their children. Background checks on these individuals—often provided by consumer reporting agencies—therefore are at a high premium. The author of Assembly Bill 2036, Assembly member Patty Lopez, cited just this concern in support of her new bill, which imposes additional restrictions on businesses providing online childcare job posting services in California and on background screening companies providing background checks to those businesses: "This Bill is another good step to protecting our children and ensuring that child care consumers are making the most informed and safest decisions about the individual(s) they hire to care for their child[ren]."

In the old days, people who needed childcare would often engage a nanny referral service. Now, of course, there are websites ("online child care job posting services") that list babysitters and nannies available for hire by parents (or other consumers). These websites usually state that the babysitters/nannies listed have undergone background checks. According to the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, while parents trust online child care job posting services when they advertise that their providers have undergone background checks, these checks are often conducted by "third parties," a process that makes it difficult to determine what information the background check may contain (for example, the check may not contain information from the FBI and the DOJ's Child Abuse Central Index databases).

AB 2036 amends existing law by imposing new duties on businesses that offer child care services (for example, nannies and babysitters) via online job-posting. In particular, if a covered business provides access to a background check on child care providers listed on its website in California, the business must provide "by means of a one-click link on each California child care provider" a written description of the background check provided by the background screener. The background screener is responsible to provide this information to the business posting the child care services. Background screeners that fail to comply with the law may be liable to individuals using the job-posting websites.

For background screening, to whom exactly does this statute apply?

The statute applies to background screeners that "provide background checks for online child care posting websites in California." These background screeners must "provide to the online child care posting services a written description of the background checks conducted," as detailed below.

This language does not expressly address whether the statute applies to background screeners that are affiliated with the job-posting website but that provide the background checks directly to the users of the child care services rather than to the business offering the services.

What information must background screeners include in their descriptions?

At minimum, a background screener's description of the information contained in the background checks must include:

  1. A detailed description of what is included in the background check.
  2. A chart that lists each county in California and the databases that are checked for each county, including the following information for each database, as applicable:
  • The source of the data, the name of the database used, and a brief description of the data included in the database.
  • The date range of the oldest data and the most recent data included.
  • How often the information is updated.
  • How the databases are checked (by name, social security number, fingerprints, etc.).
  • A list of the counties for which no data is available.

These requirements raise a host of issues, including:

  • Are these requirements general or specific? In other words, do they require a description of what background check services are generally offered, or do they require a description of what background check services were offered and provided on a particular individual?
  • Do the requirements include searches that are not tied to a county? For example, if a background screener includes social traces in background report, should the social trace be listed in the chart?
  • What do "database" and "source" mean, and how do the terms differ? The terms are undefined in AB 2036. If records are obtained from a court, is the court considered a "database," a "source," or both? What about records obtained from a vendor?
  • How frequently must a background screener update the descriptions? For example, if a database is updated regularly (and many are), the date range for the data in that database would vary regularly.

What are the liability risks and resulting penalties?

In the grand California tradition, AB 2036 provides a right to sue, and there are no restrictions on class actions. Any individual "damaged by a willful violation" can sue under the act. This class of individuals seems to encompass recipients and subjects of the reports (for example, parents requesting the reports and the providers who were the subject of the reports). Recoverable damages include general, special, and punitive damages. Because individuals must be "damaged" to sue, lawsuits under the statute are likely to be limited to claims involving financial loss or a plausible claim of emotional damage. In addition, the requirement of actual damage may make it difficult for individuals to bring class actions for violations of the statute.

The statute provides for civil penalties of $1,000 per offense. These penalties can be awarded in actions brought by government entities, but an action can proceed only if the defendant was notified of the violation and failed to correct it within 30 days of the notice.

So what next?

What AB 2036 means for background screeners is not fully clear, and we expect that there may be additional guidance from regulators and the courts as the statute is implemented. We will keep a close eye on this one, so please stay tuned for developments and updates!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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