Dallas Morning News // Flower Mound woman has a C.A.U.S.E.: background checks on home service workers
By SELWYN CRAWFORD / The Dallas Morning News firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: 01 January 2010 11:45 AM
Updated: 26 November 2010 03:20 PM
Sue Weaver could not have foreseen that having her air ducts cleaned would lead to her death.
One of two men who cleaned them in her Orlando, Fla., home in February 2001 returned six months later to rape and murder her. He then set fire to her house and body in an attempt to destroy evidence.
Weaver never knew that her killer, Jeffrey Hefling, was a convicted sex offender who was on parole when he first came to her home.
Today, Weaver’s sister, Lucia Bone of Flower Mound, operates a nonprofit organization that bears her sister’s name. Its mission is to make background checks mandatory for home service and repair workers and to educate consumers about the risks such workers may pose.
“Consumers tell me that they’re doing the right thing because the company was bonded and insured,” Bone said. “But that has nothing to do with the safety of the worker coming to their home. It’s for the protection of the business providing the service, not for the consumer.”
Bone, 52, launched Sue Weaver C.A.U.S.E., an acronym for Consumer Awareness of Unsafe Service Employment, about five years ago. She was looking for a way to heal after the loss of her sister and best friend, who was 52 when she died.
“In 2004, a group of friends gathered at my home,” Bone said. “We knew we wanted to do something in Sue’s name, we just didn’t know what. We were sitting around thinking about what we could do and I just said, ‘If they had done a background check on this guy, Sue would still be alive.’
“And we all looked at each other and said, ‘That’s it,’ ” Bone said.
C.A.U.S.E. pushes for businesses that employ home service workers to conduct complete background checks before they are hired and offers its C.A.U.S.E. Certification to businesses that agree to adhere to certain safety and security standards, primarily annual background checks of employees.
“We want to be as recognized as the Good Housekeeping Seal,” Bone said. “We want [consumers] to know that if they hire a C.A.U.S.E. Certification company, that they should be safer because that employer has background-screened all of their employees and they’ve done them to our criteria.”
One C.A.U.S.E.-certified company is the Visiting Angels Senior Living Health Care in Ocala, Fla. President John Spang said that obtaining C.A.U.S.E. certification was “a must-do” for his firm.
“We’re a strong believer; there’s nothing that can substituted for safety in the home, for the patients we take care of or for the caregiver in the home,” said Spang, who added that he pre-screens employees before running them through the C.A.U.S.E. certification process.
Sue Weaver had no such safeguard. A major department store in Orlando offered duct cleaning services, and Weaver hired the service. While all of her dealings were with the department store, from her initial phone call to the check she wrote to pay for the service, the actual work was performed by subcontractors: Hefling and another man, who was also an ex-con. Although Hefling’s criminal background was a matter of public record and easily obtained – he even admitted during the job application process that he had served 14 years in prison – a thorough background check was never done.
Hefling, who acted alone in the Weaver slaying, was arrested about six weeks after the crime. He is serving multiple life sentences in a Florida prison, Bone said. The family settled a lawsuit against the department store chain in 2004.
Unfortunately, the backing of a well-known company doesn’t assure safety, according to security experts and Bone, who said Hefling and his partner wore uniforms with the department store’s logo on them.
“The real trick is people just assume because someone works for a credible business, that they’re safe,” said Mike Coffey, president of Imperative Information Group in Fort Worth, a background service firm. “They may recognize the company brand name or the company’s reputation. But the problem is, especially in the service industry, those are largely owned by private individuals that don’t have a strong HR background.”
Coffey said that state criminal databases aren’t reliable because many are incomplete or are missing information.
“Where the records can actually be found is in those county courthouses,” Coffey said. “So you’ve got to send people back to the counties where they’ve lived and worked to find out about them. As people move around, that can seem expensive, and it is expensive, until something bad really happens.”
Fred Giles, vice president of research for Carco Group Inc., a Holtsville, N.Y., background check firm, is working with Bone to develop software that will allow consumers to see photos of service workers before they visit a home.
“I think that sometimes consumers aren’t aware of the fact that companies aren’t doing the background checks,” said Giles, who said he hopes the software will be operable by the end of April . “I think most consumers assume that if I’m a service provider, that if I send someone to your home to do work, that that person is safe.”
But Giles, Coffey and Bone agree that no one should ever assume that.
“Once that door is open and we’ve allowed a stranger in, we have no protection to the outside world,” Bone said. “We think of our home as our haven and, unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.”