New bill would modify background checks

HARRISBURG - Changes to child-protection laws mandating background checks that passed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal may be among the few bills Gov. Wolf signs this budget season.

The legislature on Tuesday sent Wolf a bill containing updates to the state law requiring background checks for all volunteers who work with children. That measure was part of a package of bills approved in 2013 to strengthen Pennsylvania's child-protection laws.

The update was prompted by unintended consequences. Many organizations, schools, and youth programs complained that ambiguity in the law's language made it difficult to figure out who needed to obtain checks. Also, the cost of those checks could deter volunteers.

The bill headed to Wolf would clarify that language and make background checks mandatory for those who have "regular contact" with children.

"The legislation had great intentions. People weren't disagreeing with the intentions. But what was [troublesome] was how big the net was," said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children's Justice, based in Bernville.

For instance, the law could be interpreted to require checks for parent volunteers working concession stands at their child's baseball game or parents dropping off cupcakes to a classroom for a birthday party, said Palm.

"It was absurd, in some way, thinking we had to screen people who were maybe having contact with children once a year, and they were in a room with four other adults and never unsupervised with the kids," she said.

Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the governor would decide on the bill once it reaches his desk.

This month, Wolf waived the background-check fee for volunteers. Under the new legislation, the volunteer fee would be waived permanently, and background checks would be extended from every three years to every five.

While Palm said the bill provides greater clarity, some changes could be problematic.

For instance, if the law does not property define what "regular and repeated" contact is, adults who have infrequent but unsupervised contact could still directly work with children without clearances. Palm said that while the center supported limiting restrictions on parents and adults who were supervised or in a public setting, it has voiced concern on this particular change.

She also said background checks can only go so far in helping to prevent abuse.

"Background checks are not a panacea," said Palm. "We can't see background checks as a substitute to really knowing and monitoring the interaction between adults and our children - and when boundaries seem to be crossed, to speak up early."

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