State Supreme Court: Woman Banned from Childcare Work for Thirty-Year-Old Robbery Conviction Must Be Given a Chance to Make Her Case

News Release: 
Thursday, February 21, 2019
Past conviction doesn’t automatically disqualify her from childcare work, court said
The Washington state Supreme Court today ruled that an applicant for a child care license must have a fair chance to show their qualifications to serve as a child care worker, and cannot be categorically denied a license based on a decades-old criminal conviction.
Plaintiff Christal Fields was banned for life from working in childcare based on a 30-year old attempted robbery conviction, but she recognized the injustice of the ban and challenged it, leading the Court to agree she must be given a hearing to make a case for why she should be allowed to work with children.
“The undisputed facts underlying Fields's 1988 conviction do not indicate that she was likely to pose a danger to children for the rest of her life,” the court said in its decision in Fields v. Washington State Department of Early Learning
The lawsuit that led to the ruling was filed by the ACLU of Washington on behalf of Ms. Fields, whose childcare license was revoked by the Department of Early Learning (DEL) when it learned about her 30-year-old conviction.
“Working with children means so much to me and I’m glad the Court recognized I should be given a chance to show that I’m able to do it,” Ms. Fields said.

Robbery is just one of 50 crimes that DEL placed on a lifetime ban list. Any person with a conviction for any crime on that list, or an attempt to commit a crime on the list, is ineligible to work in the areas regulated by DEL for the remainder of their life, no matter how long ago the conviction was, no matter the circumstances, and no matter how the applicant has turned around their life.

The court recognized that people like Ms. Fields deserve a second chance and found that this blanket ban was a violation of her constitutional right to due process. It also recognized the arduous effort required of her to secure her right to a hearing.
“[Ms. Fields] has been challenging her disqualification in court since October 2015, going through three levels of judicial review, unable to work (much less advance) in her chosen field
the entire time. The added time and expense involved in the judicial review process, in addition to the difficulty in obtaining relief, raises significant concerns about its adequacy,” the court said in its decision.
“People should not be categorically denied the opportunity to work in their chosen profession based on convictions that are not connected to their present ability to do the job,” said ACLU-WA Senior Staff Attorney Nancy Talner. “The court recognized that due process and fairness require individualized consideration instead of a blanket ban.”

“Ms. Fields has worked hard to become an excellent childcare worker. It is important that she have a chance to be heard on this matter,” said Toby J. Marshall of Terrell Marshall Law Group. “It is our hope that this decision opens the door to opportunity for the many others in similar circumstances.”

Removing barriers to employment when people have put their past behind them is not just required by the law; it benefits all of society when people with past conviction records can enter professions that enable them to support their families and contribute to their communities.

Moreover, current social science research has found that any risk posed by people with prior criminal histories decreases so significantly over time that it becomes equal to that of a person who has never been convicted.
Removing barriers to employment is also a racial justice issue, as the DEL’s categorical ban on working in the child care field disproportionately affects women, particularly low-income women of color.
Fields is represented by ACLU-WA Senior Staff Attorney Nancy Talner and ACLU-WA cooperating attorney Toby J. Marshall of Terrell Marshall Law Group.
Columbia Legal Services, Civil Survival, Incarcerated Mothers Advocacy Project, Legal Voice, National Employment Law Project, Northwest Justice Project. SEIU 925, Surge, and the Washington State Labor Council supported the case as it moved up to the Supreme Court.