CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – Cornelius Osborne may not seem like baby-sitting material.
He was convicted of raping two women. A succession of felonies, from robbery to failing to register as a sex offender, repeatedly sent him to prison, state records show.
But over more than two years, the state paid Osborne nearly $5,000 to baby-sit two children, before his latest conviction — for dealing drugs — put him back behind bars.
Osborne, of Chicago, wasn’t the only sex offender paid by taxpayers to baby-sit, according to a Tribune investigation that found cases of convicted rapists, molesters and other violent felons given access to children over the past decade. The money comes from a $750 million-a-year program that subsidizes child care for more than 150,000 impoverished Illinois families.
The state Department of Human Services poorly vetted baby sitters for years — and when a 2009 law forced better checks, it took nearly 18 months to start them, the newspaper’s investigation of the Child Care Assistance Program found.
Also, despite the reforms, the Tribune found that even now the state lacks safeguards to weed out baby sitters who watch children while living in the homes of sex offenders and other felons deemed too dangerous. Based on those findings, the state is vowing further reforms.
It’s nearly impossible to determine just how many of the illegal baby-sitting arrangements the state has allowed. The newspaper found no cases where children were harmed, although privacy laws shield data needed to do an in-depth study.
Still, the Tribune’s findings are frustrating to Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, who pushed for the reforms mandating better checks to weed out illegal arrangements.
“You’re talking about not only the state sanctioning, but the state creating, an economic incentive for someone with a criminal record to be in a room with a kid,” Murphy said. “That’s frankly not a situation that I find acceptable.”
Advocates such as Maria Whelan insist that the vast majority of baby sitters are aboveboard and that the 14-year-old federal-state program is key to helping parents work their way out of poverty. About half of the subsidies are in Cook County, where they are administered by the nonprofit Illinois Action for Children run by Whelan.
“This is a program that is absolutely essential if we are going to, with a straight face, tell families that if they work and if they continue to develop themselves, we can help them make a difference for their families,” she said.
Program administrators have gotten national recognition for weeding out parents who don’t qualify for the subsidies. But records show they’ve struggled for years to weed out disqualified baby sitters, such as Osborne.
The honor system
All it took for Osborne was a 2004 application mailed with the help of his sister, whose two children he would be paid to watch in her Englewood apartment.
She was able to pick the baby sitter, and she told the Tribune she didn’t worry about her brother hurting the kids. But she did worry the state would object.
“I thought he would be rejected,” she said, “but they didn’t. I never got a call. They never asked about it.”
They should have. The program has long barred those convicted of sex crimes and the most violent felonies. But Osborne wasn’t spotted because of how the form was filled out. It asked him if he had been convicted of any crimes and, if so, which ones. His response showed “drug trafficking” — a crime that at the time didn’t disqualify him.
He didn’t mention the prison stints for rape, robbery and kidnapping, which would have.
And there’s no record anyone checked further.
At the time, the state trusted Osborne and tens of thousands of other applicants to be honest.