The Agency for Health Care Administration is in charge of policing registered nurses for complaints and criminal acts. Last month, it zeroed in on an ominous target: a South Florida nurse with a spray gun. Make that, a nurse who had once used a spray gun.
Ray Fetcho, a registered nurse for 40 years, was fired in early February for a 1976 conviction of lewd behavior. How lewd? He once emceed a wet jockeys contest. "I should be looking at retirement, and now I'm looking for a job," Fetcho says. "What can a 61-year-old* man do to make any money, especially in this economy?"
About 30 years ago, Fetcho moonlighted as Tiny Tina, a Divine-esque, crimson-headed drag queen with a weekly gig at Dania Beach's Copa club. Every Tuesday night, Tina would emcee a wet jockeys contest, which in late 70s South Florida was apparently quite the scandal. Broward Police arrested him for lewd behavior, and he paid a $150 fine.
Thirty years later, Fetcho is living in a Pompano Beach mobile park, a middle-aged, bald, toothless show-biz refugee. He only puts on a dress every now and then for a benefit. In other words, your typical South Florida resident.
He'd never had a problem with employers since the conviction until last month, when AHCA told his bosses at the Davie assisted living facility where he'd worked for a decade that they couldn't hire someone with a criminal record.
On Monday, Norm Kent, a Ft. Lauderdale attorney, announced on his column in South Florida Gay News that he would help Fetcho file an exemption with the Florida Department of Health. The Department grants exemptions for convictions that are too old for the person to represent a risk, and while it won't erase the nurse's conviction, it can allow him to return to work. Kent is surprised, though, at how ineffective the state is at policing licensees."Makes you wonder what took them so long to find out," he says. "How many other individuals might be employed with ongoing criminal records that the state hasn't disciplined?"
As it turns out, ProPublica has been looking at this very question for the past two years. How terrible are states at spotting dangerous nurses? Surprise! Turns out they're pretty incompetent. In California, the independent journalism start-up discovered the Board of Registered Nurses licensed people who had among them "19 convictions for assault, including five felonies, and 39 for sex offenses, three of them felonies." Oops. Since there isn't a universal digital file system, states also routinely license nurses who might have been sanctioned in other states.
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After one Florida nurse was suspended for negligence in a 21-month-old's death, she went to Connecticut where she got licensed again, and was faulted for another boy's death. Using ProPublica's handy state-by-state guide to dangerous nurses, we found Jeffrey Strong, whose license was indefinitely suspended in Virginia two years ago. Still, he has active licenses in two states: California and Florida.
Meanwhile, Fetcho, née Tina, still has an active license but can't be hired anywhere because of his wet jockeys conviction. No nursing home wants to take a risk that their license will be suspended by AHCA too. "Where does that leave me?" he says. "Probably being a greeter at Wal-Mart. Surely, a fate no former queen should suffer.
*Correction: A reader caught a mistake in the original post; Mr. Fetcho is 61, not 51.