As a result of child abuse cases that have gathered national attention in recent years, there has been a growing trend among states to increase background checks for professions that come in close and regular contact with children.
One example is Pennsylvania, which passed a law in 2014 requiring anyone who works with students at public and private schools in the state to obtain background checks.
This requirement, which is effective July 1, 2015, defines a background check to include both criminal and child abuse checks. Such a mandate is not uncommon for teachers and staff in education settings across the country.
New Hampshire, for example, passed a law last year that required anyone working in youth programs (such as summer and sports camps, as well as the performing arts) to pass a criminal background check.
Pennsylvania has now taken the additional step of also requiring volunteers at schools, including parents and grandparents, to clear background checks as well.
In fact, the Pennsylvania law extends well beyond schools to other organizations where volunteers may come into contact with children, including volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel. The State of New York passed a similar law in 2014.
While there is still debate in the emergency management community about the benefits and challenges of taking such precautions, some proponents within these agencies have cited both the increased safety that background verifications can provide for vulnerable populations, as well as the legal risk mitigation it may provide for emergency responders.
Is Pennsylvania’s criminal check sufficient to ward off those who might potentially harm children? Arguably, it is a step in the right direction. However, it is important to realize that a Pennsylvania criminal search does not extend to other states, such as West Virginia and Maryland, which are only minutes away from some schools in Pennsylvania.
It’s quite conceivable that an individual may clear a criminal background check conducted in Pennsylvania but harbor an offense in an adjoining state. To help ensure a more comprehensive search, organizations that work with volunteers may actually want to consider broader screening options, including other states and jurisdictions, sex offender registries and even drug testing.
Such extended background checks can help provide an added layer of safety for vulnerable populations such as children. Furthermore, the additional due diligence may also help shield the organization from potential legal liability claims.
Understandably, this can be an area of complexity and confusion for many organizations as they strive to protect the very population they are serving – children.
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