Child Abuse Clearance Law Being Clarified

Pennsylvania — Gov. Tom Wolf has waived the fees required by the Child Protective Services Law for volunteers who work with children.

Wolf said earlier this month he was waiving the fees for the volunteers’ child abuse clearances and criminal background checks as a matter of policy. Additionally, the Department of Human Services and the Pennsylvania State Police will reduce the cost of those clearances from $10 to $8 for all other applicants, effective July 25.

As of Wednesday, volunteers are required to obtain both the Child Abuse History Clearance from the Department of Human Services and the Criminal History Record Check from state police.

In addition, FBI clearances also are required for all employees and for volunteers who have not been a continuous resident of the commonwealth for the last 10 years. Since those clearances are administered by the federal government, current fees of $27.50 for a clearance through Human Services and $28.50 for one through the Pennsylvania Department of Education will continue to apply.

The administration is not issuing refunds to volunteers who already obtained their clearances, noted state Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-116, Butler Township, whose office has been flooded with questions regarding who needs the clearances and who doesn’t need them.

Earlier this month, the House approved legislation that aims to address the unintended consequences created by the child-protection laws. The measure would limit background checks to volunteers and employees at schools, child-care facilities and similar places that have direct contact and routine interaction with children.

The current law, Act 153, requires clearances for people with direct contact or routine interaction, which wasn’t clearly defined. Under House Bill 1276, direct contact is defined as care, supervision, guidance or control of children, while routine interaction is regular, repeated and continued contact that is integral to a person’s employment or volunteer responsibilities.

“H.B. 1276 is an effort to clarify who needs clearances and who does not”, Toohil said. “For example, right now, due to the confusion we have people getting clearances that do not need to get clearances. A parent who wants to bring cupcakes into their child’s class for the child’s birthday does not need to get clearances”.

“The law applies to parents who frequently become a volunteer in the classroom in a chaperoning capacity”, she said.

Similarly, volunteers from a nonprofit organization, such as a Veterans of Foreign Wars post, hosting a one-time event for children, such as a holiday party, would not need clearances, Toohil said. Also exempted would be volunteers working in an administrative capacity behind a desk for a nonprofit, she said.

But people with more direct and frequent contact with children, such as a Little League coach or volunteer in a classroom or field trip, would need clearances, Toohil said.

She believes most people working with children want to know those children can’t be exposed to people with a record of abuse against children and will make the effort to ensure the children are safe, she said.

“Child predators will do anything they can to avoid having a light expose their history or background”, Toohil said. “Typically, child predators do not want to answer questions about who they have resided with and where they have resided. The requirement of having to complete a child abuse clearance has a deterrent effect and many times people will just refuse to complete the process”.

Toohil encouraged anyone with questions about the clearances or H.B. 1276, which is now before the state Senate, to contact her office.

Wolf credited the Legislature for its bipartisan efforts “to develop needed clarifications” to the law.

“Through that process, the General Assembly expressed concerns of many members about the cost of background clearances, particularly for volunteers. I share those concerns and that is why I am excited about this announcement”, he said.

State Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-122, Lower Towamensing Township, one of nine lawmakers who voted against H.B. 1276, said he did so because it was amended to exempt college and university employees from the background check requirements.

Heffley said the laws were created in response to atrocities committed on a university campus, referring to the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State.

“As the laws began to take effect, it became increasingly clear that the General Assembly needed to revisit them to clarify definitions and, in some instances, make the requirements less onerous,” he said.

“I am disappointed that, in the process of cleaning up the laws … in a manner that is not prohibitively costly to our valued volunteers, an amendment was added that exempts college and university employees from the background check requirements. By exempting the very people these laws were initially intended to cover, this amendment rolls back important protections that were included in the original laws.”

If the Senate amends the bill to remove the exemption for college and university employees, Heffley said he would gladly vote for it.

Too late for this year

Hazleton Little League President Ed Shoepe said the changes are fine for next year but this year it still affects coaches participating in all-star tournaments and others.

“It still affects five teams this year plus Little League board members, volunteer workers (at) the concession stands, you’re talking 30 to 40 people who must pay the fees” because the waivers don’t go into effect until July 25, Shoepe said.

While existing volunteers who did not previously need the clearances have one year to obtain them and will be able to obtain them free after July 25, new volunteers needed to obtain both the criminal record and child abuse history clearances before July 1 to work with children.

The league, with more than 300 children on 24 teams, adds new volunteers every year, Shoepe said. It needs about 130 volunteers, including more than 80 coaches and 24 team moms or team parents, to function, he said.

Some of those volunteers were required to get the nearly $30 FBI clearances, in addition to the two state clearances, because they haven’t lived in the state for 10 years, which is common in Hazleton, he said.

Shoepe pointed out that a Hazleton police officer working as a coach in Little League tournaments had to have the required background checks.

“The average cost was about $50 for volunteers to get the background checks for both state and federal requirements”, he said.

Shoepe admits the rules are confusing, especially when it comes to something like the Challenger League where the parents are on the field with their children alongside volunteers. Hazleton Little League also requires parents to be at the children’s games, albeit not on the field, he said.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the governor and state lawmakers are making the changes, but it is too late for this year. Those changes won’t kick in until next year,” he said.