SEATTLE — A woman who was disqualified from working in child care because of a decades-old conviction for purse-snatching may get another chance under a split ruling Thursday from Washington’s Supreme Court.
With help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Christal Fields, 53, challenged a state law that automatically bars people convicted of 50 types of crimes from working in child care.
The court did not strike down the law, but said 5-4 it was applied unfairly in her case and ordered the Department of Children, Youth and Families to conduct a hearing to evaluate whether she’s fit for the work — a decision that could also apply to others barred by past convictions.
“This is really a tremendous win for not only Ms. Fields but for people who are deserving of a second chance generally,” said Toby Marshall, one of her attorneys.
Fields grew up in a dysfunctional home where drug abuse was rampant. By 1988 she was a 22-year-old, homeless domestic violence victim, and she tried to steal a woman’s purse to support her drug addiction. She pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree robbery.
She continued to commit minor crimes to support her addiction, court records say, but in 2006 she entered King County’s drug court program and thrived. She’s been sober ever since, done volunteer work, and discovered she loves caring for children.
In 2013, the state cleared her to begin working at Community Day Center for Children, which was founded in 1963 in Seattle’s Central District to support single mothers.
“Once she began to work here with the staff and the parents and students, she would bring so much joy into the classroom,” Lois Martin, the center’s director, said Thursday.
Six months later, a local television news story raised concerns about people with criminal records working at daycares. The state re-examined Fields’ case and sent her a letter barring her from continuing to work in child care because of the 1988 conviction.
She appealed the decision but failed, as she was given no opportunity to argue that she had been rehabilitated, and the ACLU sued on her behalf.
The court majority said the state must give Fields a hearing to assess her suitability for child care work. The majority found that automatically barring her without considering whether she actually posed a risk to children or her other attributes violated her due process rights.
“Without question, prior criminal convictions are relevant considerations when evaluating a person’s future ability to care for vulnerable populations such as children,” Justice Mary Yu wrote in the lead opinion. “However, Fields’s conviction is based on an offense that was committed 30 years ago, when she was under 25 years old.”
The Department of Children, Youth and Families did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The dissenting justices said it would be unduly burdensome for the state to have to conduct hearings every time someone barred from working in child care — even those convicted of child abuse — claimed to be rehabilitated. The state receives 21,000 applications each year from people seeking to work in the field.
“It may be true that Fields in fact does not pose a danger to children today,” wrote Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst. But, she added, “the disqualification regulations are a reasonable means to advance the State’s legitimate interest” in protecting children.
Lisa Stone, the director of the Seattle-based women’s rights law center Legal Voice, welcomed the ruling but said it didn’t go far enough. Given that women make up most of the child care work force, the regulations may disproportionately affect women in violation of state law — a question the justices didn’t address.
“The regulation doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “It’s an across-the-board hammer, and it’s hammering things that aren’t even nails. The state wants to protect children — great! But this is disproportionate to the crime Christal committed.”
Stone also noted that while the ruling could clear the way for others to challenge their bans based on past convictions, they won’t be able to appeal unless they know about those rights and have the resources to do so.
Fields, who has been working as an office manager, said Thursday she was excited about the prospect of returning to child care.
“I love working with children,” she said. “I’m a natural mother.”