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Ex-Prisoners Barred From Nursing in Texas

by Matthew T. Clarke

Recently, the Dallas Morning News (DMN) generated articles decrying the presence of convicted drug and sex offenders in the nursing profession.
Texas, like many states, has statutes denying ex-prisoners licensing in many state-licensed professions. In some professions, being convicted of a misdemeanor is sufficient cause for license revocation. In others, ex-prisoners are effectively barred from employment by laws requiring employers to perform background checks on potential employees.
The newspaper articles focused on drug and sex offenders. The reason they did this is because these offenses were the easiest to track--especially the sex offenders for which there exists a statewide registration database. The DMN compared the list of drug and sex offenders to the records of 500,000 nurses, about half of which held current licenses and the rest of which could renew their licenses if they paid delinquent fees or enrolled in nursing courses. The DMN found that, among the 500,000 names, were 31 registered sex offenders, 26 other felony sex offenders, and 142 felony drug offenders. Among these 199 drug or sex offenders, 58 were currently or had been previously incarcerated in a state prison. State law requires license revocation for felons who receive prison time. So, this crusading newspaper report discovered 58 out of 500,000 (or 0.011%) of the potential licensees could be licensed in violation of the state law prohibiting ex-prisoners from holding nursing licenses.
Some people think that a 0.011% error rate is not good enough, even though the newspaper did not turn up a single incidence of one of the ex-prisoners having caused a problem.

You probably don't want someone who is a registered sex offender being alone with you in a room where you are probably not completely dressed," said the executive director of the Dallas group Victims Outreach, Kristianne Hinkamp. Others note that a blanket ban on sex offenders would go too far.

Just because someone is convicted of a sex crime does not determine their dangerousness," said executive director of the Texas Council on Sex Offender Treatment Allison Taylor. We've got to look at who is dangerous and who is not.

A lot of times the media portrays sex offenders in a different light than what research shows us," said Taylor. Only 5 to 10 percent are predatory in nature.

For instance, a nurse who as a teenager had been charged with having sex with his underage girlfriend shouldn't necessarily be banned from nursing, according to Taylor. She said that most sex offenders can change their behavior, but it is essential that they be subjected to close monitoring, including polygraph tests.

The Texas Board of Nurse Examiners hasn't been performing background checks, instead relying on self-reporting by the nurses. The reason given was budgetary concerns.

So what is the employers' reaction to this controversy? In the case of Kevin Todd Shelton, who received deferred adjudication (a type of probation) for a sex offense and is a registered sex offender, the board didn't know it had licensed a registered sex offender because board rules didn't require the reporting of deferred adjudication at the time he was licensed. That changed two years ago when new rules requiring such reporting were enacted.

Upon discovering Shelton's status, the board moved to revoke his license as a registered nurse. However, Shelton's supervisors at Presbyterian Hospital in Greeneville gave Shelton such a good recommendation, the board reconsidered.

He's been working, and they love him," said James Dusty" Johnson, general counsel for the board. It's like he's the best nurse they ever had. They go on and on about him. Are we going to change the rule and then revoke you?

The board decided to suspend Shelton's license until he completes a psychological evaluation. If the evaluation determines that he can safely practice nursing, he will be required to work in a clinical setting, notify employers of his criminal history, be supervised by a registered nurse and have access only to patients over 18 for three years.
Presbyterian Hospital officials said the hospital knew of Shelton's background when it hired him and confirmed it with a routine background check.

We were able to satisfy what questions we had," said hospital official John Heatherly. I think it is important to look at the whole picture and the whole story and not make any uninformed or snap judgments.

The board received funding to conduct background checks on applicants for registered nurse applicants, but did not push for funding to check all license holders. The Legislative Budget Board asked the licensing board to conduct background checks on all vocational applicants and randomly check nurses coming up for license renewal over the next 10 years, in an effort to spread the expenses over several budgets.

That isn't enough for people like Hinkamp. She favors a blanket ban on all sex offenders. Under our current system of laws, we deem him or her to be a danger enough to be registered, I think that precludes certain professions," said Hinkamp. I can't imagine a situation where you could be using your nursing license as a registered sex offender where you could be completely trusted.

Unfortunately, in Texas and many other states, the idea of ban em all, let God sort em out" prevails, and not just in the nursing profession. According to the Texas State Law Library, there are over a hundred state-licensed or certified professions in which ex-prisoners may not work or may be restricted from working. This includes virtually every occupation licensed or certified by the state, many of which have no obvious need for such a restriction (e.g. embalming; speech pathologist; interior designer; real estate sales; home plumbing, electrical systems, appliances, or heating/AC repair).

What is the effect of banning people returning from prison from practicing their profession? It makes it more difficult, for them to gain lawful employment. This virtually condemns them to a life of crime or poverty and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: prisoners can't be rehabilitated." It's like holding a prisoner's head under water then, when he drowns, saying, See, I told you so, prisoners can't learn how to swim."

Sources: Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News.

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