COLUMBIA - About 25 percent of direct caregivers hired by the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs are hired without knowledge of their criminal history, according to an audit released Monday.

The Legislative Audit Council released the results in an audit conducted at the request of the General Assembly. The audit focused on abuse, neglect and exploitation of consumers, procurement and eligibility.

Caregivers are hired by state and private-run facilities, and it's not just DDSN employees that are not being screened, council director Perry Simpson said.

Advocates for the disabled heralded the audit as proof something should change.

"I think background checks are just crucial for anybody who works with people with disabilities," said Gloria Prevost, of executive director of the organization Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities.

"It's just so hard for family members and individuals to feel comfortable that their caregivers are who they should be receiving care from," she added. "If I were a provider, I would want to know about the people I'm hiring."

The audit revealed DDSN has inadequate controls because background checks are limited or non-existent. It also found that staff determined a reported inappropriate sexual act was consensual, without forwarding the case to law enforcement.

There also was confusion about which staff members should receive allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation. Even employees in the same facility gave different answers. To simplify the process, the audit suggested state law be amended so all allegations of abuse must be reported to SLED's Vulnerable Adults Investigations Unit.

Overall, the number of alleged abuse cases statewide dropped from 413 in 2012 to 233 last year. About 13,000 consumers are served by the department.

The Legislative Audit Council also recommended that agency staff undergo yearly training on abuse, neglect and exploitation.

At least 20 other states have some form of abuse registry, and the audit suggested South Carolina create one as well. That recommendation has been made at least twice before, and Marcia Lindsay, the manager for the audit released Monday, said the issue with creating such a registry boils down to funding.

"I think it's something that's needed," said Simpson. Even though it's unclear who would be responsible for such a registry, he said its existence "would be another added protection for adults."

Registries in other states include the names of caregivers who have abused, neglected or exploited a vulnerable adult.

The 103-page report offered a total of 49 recommendations, and Prevost said she hopes they lead to significant change.

"I think it's important because it does impact a great number of people who cannot speak up for themselves," she said. "I don't see any recommendations that I think would be problematic, if they were enforced."

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.