The Department of Early Learning (DEL), now included with the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), is the agency responsible for determining which applicants receive clearance to work in child care facilities. In doing so, DEL conducts background checks on these applicants to decide whether the “individual is of appropriate character, suitability, and competence to provide child care and early learning services to children.” The DEL also has regulations that set out certain criminal convictions will “permanently disqualify” an individual from employment and these regulations further prohibit case-by-case reconsideration of a permanent disqualification.
Christal Fields was permanently disqualified under these regulations for an attempted robbery charge on her record from 30 years before. Having no recourse for reconsideration at an administrative level, she took her issue to the courts. On February 21, 2019, the WA Supreme court decided that the DEL’s regulations prohibiting any individualized consideration of Fields’s qualifications at the administrative level violate her federal right to procedural due process, as applied.
This decision was narrowly drawn to the unique facts and circumstances of Ms. Fields’s case, finding that because her sole disqualifying conviction occurred long ago under circumstances that no longer exist, it is highly likely that her permanent disqualification is erroneously arbitrary. The majority articulated that this decision does not mean that every person with a permanently disqualifying conviction must be given an individualized administrative hearing – it extends only to Ms. Fields. The majority further stated, however, that to the extent DEL’s procedures create a high likelihood of producing arbitrary results in other cases, the added burden of individual assessments is constitutionally required.
The dissent cautions that this decision makes it inevitable with the high number of applicants DEL receives each year, others will also argue that they are rehabilitated despite their convictions for disqualifying crimes. The dissent believes this ruling means that DEL will have to make a choice each time a person claims to be rehabilitated and must now consider the argument that its own rule is unconstitutional as applied.
It’s uncertain what the practical results of this decision will be, but what once was a permanent disqualification to work with children may not be so permanent anymore.
Fields v. Dep’t of Early Learning, https://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/950245.pdf
By: Nicole R Luth, Legal Intern