Who Should be Checked?

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The Mississippi Board of Health has asked the attorney general for an opinion on whether 4,000 nursing students applying for work must undergo criminal background checks under a new regulation to protect vulnerable adults.

The new law requires criminal background checks and fingerprinting for new employees who provide direct care at Mississippi nursing homes, personal care homes, assisted-living centers, hospices and home health agencies. The Board of Health regulations, which track the law, will take effect in August.

This week, the board extended the deadline for compliance by nursing students until January 2004. Under the law, those convicted of felonies, including drug offenses, rape, armed robbery, murder, arson and sex crimes, will be denied employment.

Caregivers who already are employed must sign affidavits declaring whether they have been convicted of a felony.

A "vulnerable adult'' is defined as anyone 18 years or older or any minor who can't protect or care for themselves. Board of Health member Mary Kim Smith said state officials also thought the law excluded nursing school students.

If the rules apply to students, Mary Ware, dean of the William Carey College School of Nursing, says officials at her school would be required to use criminal background checks in admissions.