Editor’s note: Today is the final part of a three-day series on new laws aimed at protecting children in Pennsylvania.
The requirements of the Child Protective Services Law are designed to do just that — protect children. A part of that protection involves preventing potential abusers from coming in contact with children through employment or volunteering.
The clearances that would, on paper, prevent a potential abuser from meeting a child, however, aren’t without their limitations.
“I’m not sure at this point (if it will be effective),” said Laura Masgalas, Sexual Assault/Rape Crisis Service program manager at Carlisle YWCA. “We need to see how this plays out in real life. It’s still new, and we don’t see what the full impact will be.”
The Pennsylvania Child Abuse History Clearance and the Pennsylvania Access to Criminal History (PATCH) background check, as well as the federal criminal background check through the FBI, only catch a history of abuse or crime.
Trooper Adam Reed, coordinator of the public information office at the Pennsylvania State Police, said the criminal background check is processed through the Pennsylvania State Police Central Repository, and any crimes stored in that database would appear in the background check returned to the agency or business.
There are limitations to what that check will find, he said.
“The checks are dependent on fingerprint compliance at the time of arrest,” Reed said in an email. “If an individual is not fingerprinted and processed for the charged offense, it would not appear on the PATCH check.”
Reed said the check would return to the agency with all crimes listed in the database, but the offenses that will prohibit a person from volunteering or working with an agency or company are often set by that organization.
The statute in the Child Protective Services Law lists certain crimes as grounds for denying employment. In the case of those looking to volunteer or work with children, grounds for denial include those who have been convicted of certain offenses, including criminal homicide, aggravated assault, stalking, unlawful restraint, rape and kidnapping.
Most of the crimes, however, directly involve those perpetrated against children — statutory sexual assault, endangering the welfare of a child and corruption of minors, among others.
Crimes not on the list include retail theft, public drunkenness, harassment and other common summary and misdemeanor charges.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in an email that it takes issue with such checks that are used in a discriminatory way. However, the Child Protective Services Law in Pennsylvania and other similar laws in other states are considered acceptable if the crimes that are grounds for dismissal are related to the job for which the person is applying.
For example, the EEOC said a person who applies for an office assistant position at a preschool can be rejected if a criminal history showed he or she was charged with indecent exposure two years ago.
“In general, if the employer can prove that their policy is job-related consistent with business necessity, it’s possible that the employer may not be liable for violating Title VII,” the EEOC said in an email.
In addition to staying under federal guidelines, Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance Director of Training Tina Phillips said it makes sense that the statute for the law settled on those types of crimes.
“I think our Legislature tried to capture the crimes where if a person was convicted, they may put the kids at harm,” she said.
Despite the limitations to what the clearances will find, most agree that it’s an important first step in making sure children are safer at school and activities.
“We absolutely support the new legislation and more requirements for background checks, and redoing clearances every 36 months,” Phillips said.
Masgalas echoed those thoughts.
“I think that it’s certainly a step in the right direction,” she said. “I think anyone who interacts with children has a social responsibility for their safety.”
“A lot of what Pennsylvania is doing is what a lot of other states have done,” said Ted Dallas, acting secretary of the state Department of Human Services. “Things that make sure kids are safer are a good thing.”
The clearances and the other new requirements, however, are not the end of the conversation.
“Clearance is really only one step in child protection,” Phillips said. “You need policy and procedures, limiting private one-on-one contact and identifying signs.”
Leroy Weaver, a member of the Mechanicsburg Lions Club and a former Scoutmaster, said the Boy Scouts of America have a special program that prohibits one-on-one contact between an adult and child. The two-deep leadership requires two adults on outings, and any personal conferences must be held in view of another adult or parent.
Phillips said volunteers may have the clearances they need, but they also need to identify when a child may be abused.
“They need to look out for changes in a child’s behavior, children suddenly losing interest in an activity that they once really loved, and serious injuries that do not have an explanation, explanations that change over time or explanations that don’t match the injuries,” she said.
Phillips said doing so requires training, and the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance does provide training for mandated reporters and volunteers, which is available online at www.pa-fsa.org.
Masgalas said volunteers with Carlisle YWCA’s rape crisis program must go through mandatory training under Act 31 and must also complete 65 hours of training.
Jenny Morgenthau, executive director of the Fresh Air Fund, said host families in their program undergo more than just the clearances. Volunteers in each community where the Fresh Air Fund has a presence interview host families at their home at a time where all family members are present. The organization also gets references from a person with professional standing — such as a principal, teacher or doctor — and a volunteer interviewer can deny a family from volunteering if the home isn’t suitable, even if there is nothing illegal going on.
Masgalas said the push for increased awareness of child safety has affected the number of child abuse reports and investigations in the county.
“As far as caseload is concerned, in January, February and March this year, we helped with 51 Children’s Resource Center child abuse investigations. Last year during those first three months, there were 33,” she said. “I don’t think it’s because of the role of mandated reporters being expanded. Family members are calling more often than they used to.”