The state's Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities failed to perform background checks on all of its employees and volunteers, and it didn't adequately safeguard the money and possessions of people in its care, according to a new audit by the state comptroller’s office.
A check of agency records going back to 2013 found several instances of background checks occurring after employees had started work — and in some cases, not at all. Auditors could not identify anyone who slipped through that was unsuitable, they said, but they warned that even one failure could have serious ramifications.
Auditors also found that records tracking the possessions of people in DIDD's care were easily manipulated, allowing one case of theft. They told DIDD to tighten up recordkeeping — even for inexpensive items that might have sentimental value for DIDD clients.
Altogether, the unusually lengthy audit runs to more than 200 pages, detailing ways in which DIDD could improve care for some of Tennessee’s most vulnerable citizens. It was the agency's first audit in four years.
But the comptroller's office also praised it for improvements made since then. They noted that DIDD "has celebrated multiple achievements," including settling long-running lawsuits and shifting residents from two facilities to group homes.
In a statement, DIDD officials touted those successes and pledged to do better.
"DIDD views the audit as an important management tool as we strive to continuously improve our processes and operations to benefit Tennesseans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. While we do not agree with all of the auditors’ assessments, we have taken steps to resolve any outstanding concerns identified in the audit."
Missed background checks
Perhaps the most serious of the audit's findings involved missed background checks.
Everyone who comes in contact with Tennesseans served by the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities is supposed to be vetted. That includes volunteers who may be left alone with DIDD clients.
The checks include looking for past sexual abuse, felony convictions and, for employees, checks of their licenses, work experience and credentials.
But a sampling of personnel files found that 8 percent of the checks for criminal records came after employees had started — and in one case more than two years afterward. The error rates were higher when checking for cases of sex abuse or other abuse.
DIDD officials suggested auditors' findings might be overstated.
Auditors also questioned DIDD's approach to keeping clients' property.
They noted that records listing the possessions of people in the department's care were often shared among employees, with no backup. That made it possible for a caregiver to steal articles of clothing from one person and cover it up by deleting it from the list.
And, the comptroller's office raised concerns about DIDD officials' philosophy toward personal property. Auditors said DIDD appeared to believe that items worth less than $5 were too insignificant to worry about losing.
"We, however, considered both qualitative and quantitative measurements," auditors wrote. "Items on the personal property lists represent all of the individual's material possessions. Even if an item is relatively inexpensive, it may be an individual's favorite possession, and losing it could cause him or her distress."
Auditors urged DIDD to conduct more inventories of personal property and to do a better job of recordkeeping.