Pennsylvania – Nearly 152,000 requests for child abuse clearances poured into the ChildLine office of the state Department of Human Services in the first two months after a new background check law took effect on Dec. 31.
Out of those applications that have been processed, 185 – less than 1 percent – were submitted by individuals with some history of child abuse.
Given that small percentage, is this law that requires anyone who has routine interaction with children in a work or volunteer capacity to obtain criminal background checks and a child abuse clearance overkill?
You would be hard-pressed to find any child advocate to say that. Rather they say if anything, it is a reason to celebrate the fact that perpetrators of child abuse were prevented from gaining access to children.
Yet even advocates are seeing a world of confusion surrounding the new law and believe some tweaking could help the public better understand what it requires.
That work is already underway. A bi-partisan team from the House and Senate are working on legislation that is hoped to reach Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk by late spring. Assisting with that work are representatives from the human services department, Department of Education and Pennsylvania State Police.
“We’re looking to make it more explicit in statute so we don’t have an over-reliance on guidelines from the Department of Human Services,” said House Children and Youth Committee executive director Greg Grasa.
The need for clarity became apparent when some lawmakers’ offices were barraged with questions in recent months about who exactly was subject to the background checks requirement that must be updated every three years, and when they needed to get them. Other concerns include the fees attached to checks, which can run close to $50.
Hearing the real-world scenarios made it evident a little more work on the law to address the ambiguities was required. But Grasa made it clear that those working on clarifying the law in no way are looking to roll back the background check requirement.
That was a concern for Center for Children’s Justice founder Cathleen Palm.
“We had been worried that given all the confusion and anxiety, we felt there was an opportunity to walk it back but it doesn’t appear that people are trying to walk it back at all,” Palm said.
Requiring employees and adult volunteers who work directly with children on an ongoing basis to obtain state – and in some cases, federal – criminal background checks along with child abuse clearances is what she considers the gold standard.
“Having the state dictate which background checks need to be done, I don’t think you’ll find that in other states,” she said.
She said the proactive stance in mandating these requirements, although not a total panacea to the problem of preventing child abuse, makes Pennsylvania a leader in child protection nationally and she doesn’t want to see it backslide by weakening that law.
Neither does Bucks County District Attorney Dave Heckler, who chaired the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection formed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal to look at flaws in the state’s child protection laws.
Heckler said Pennsylvania ranked pretty poorly in terms of its background check requirements, which led to the task force’s recommendation to strengthen them.
Even though the new law has drawn criticism about the expense and bother involved in getting the checks and having to update them every three years, Heckler said, “I would absolutely stand by it. … This is for the protection of children, not the convenience of adults.”
He said the state might find ways to make the process for getting the checks more efficient and perhaps less expensive, “but the idea that we would get rid of these requirements, uh huh. We’re trying to protect children. We did a wretched, wretched job of it before and Jerry Sandusky is the classic poster child, but he is far from being alone.”