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Pennsylvania youth volunteers subject to strict background checks

The Jerry Sandusky scandal has made all Pennsylvanians more vigilant about the threat of child sexual abuse. It has also raised awareness that child predators do not necessarily stand out as suspicious, and that this is why it may be easy for them to gain access to children in a professional or volunteer context.

Thankfully, the Pennsylvania legislature continues to make child protection a priority, as it did with House Bill 435. Earlier this month, the bill cleared the House with overwhelming support and went on to pass unanimously in the Senate. The bill mandates strict background checks for anyone applying for a volunteer position that puts them in regular or routine contact with children.

The law does not go into effect until July 2015. When it does, anyone wanting to volunteer in a youth organization (or similar endeavor) must pass a criminal background check. Obviously, most types of sex crimes and serious felonies will disqualify someone from working with children, as will allegations of child abuse. Anyone with a drug law conviction in the previous five years will also be disqualified.

Once the law is enacted, anyone with a clean background check will not need to be rechecked for three years. However, the law requires that anyone who is arrested for a disqualifying crime (who was previously in good standing) must report that arrest to the organization for which they volunteer within 72 hours.

This law is a good idea, and will likely weed out some would-be volunteers who pose an obvious risk. However, it will not eliminate the threat entirely, because certain child predators are able to maintain a clean criminal record. They do this using the same caution, patience and careful planning that they use to groom their victims.

Better screening for volunteer programs is necessary, but we must couple that with demands for constant vigilance and transparency. We all have a responsibility to protect children, and this means holding all adults accountable for any suspicious behavior when working with kids.

Source: PennLive.com, “Want to volunteer in a kids' program in Pennsylvania? Prepare for background checks,” Charles Thompson, Oct. 14, 2014

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