In the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case, the Pennsylvania Legislature strengthened background check requirements for anyone who worked with, or volunteered with, children. As a York Dispatch and Spotlight PA investigation — published last week in LNP | LancasterOnline — reported, “The goal was to prevent those with certain criminal records or a history of abuse from gaining access to minors through youth programs. Now, five years after the law took effect, there are signs it isn’t working as intended, and organizations are able to skirt the rules and face few, if any, consequences, according to a two-month review.” Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with LNP Media Group and other news organizations.
Parents, you’re on your own.
That’s the takeaway, it seems to us, of the York Dispatch and Spotlight PA investigation that found that the state's background check law isn't being enforced.
As of 2015, as the article pointed out, state law has required “anyone working with children in the public, private or nonprofit sector, including volunteers, to undergo a criminal background check by the State Police and a child abuse clearance by the Department of Welfare. Some are also required to get a third check by the FBI. The clearances are good for 60 months and must be on file with the organization before volunteers start their work.
“The mandate was hailed as a major step forward in protecting children, and few question the value of it. But ... its effectiveness relies on trust — not actual enforcement.”
This is clearly not sufficient. Those seeking to abuse children won’t be bound by an honor system. Sexual abusers often look for loopholes to exploit and opportunities to offend.
A paper tiger of a background check system is not much of a deterrent to abuse.
Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub told The York Dispatch and Spotlight PA that it would be hard to successfully prosecute someone under the law as written because there needs to be “willful violation of the law.”
And the state isn’t monitoring background check compliance in organizations such as the Boy Scouts or youth sports clubs or dance troupes.
Amy Grippi, executive director of child services for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, told The York Dispatch and Spotlight PA that state-regulated entities, such as day care facilities and residential homes for children, are regularly checked to ensure they are collecting and keeping clearances on file.
“But overseeing other private and nonprofit groups that are not already subject to state oversight would be a major undertaking and require more resources,” the article noted.
“There are probably thousands of such programs and services,” Grippi said.
She suggested that parents ask youth groups directly about their policies on clearances.
We’d suggest that parents ask these specific questions of an organization’s leaders:
— Has every person who’s going to work with, or supervise, my child gotten the state-mandated clearances?
— Have you personally checked those clearances to ensure they’re up to date?
— Can you send me an email confirming that you’ve checked those clearances?
If that last question seems extreme, consider the following.
A York County Boy Scout troop allowed a scoutmaster to attend an overnight trip, even though he did not have up-to-date clearances on file. And “a York-based troop member complained that one of its leaders had attended a two-day camp last summer thinking his clearances were on file, when, in fact, New Birth of Freedom Council officials had no record of them,” The York Dispatch and Spotlight PA reported.
Ron Gardner, CEO of the New Birth of Freedom Council, said individual troops — which are led by volunteers — share the responsibility with the council of making sure that clearances are properly maintained.
But, again, where’s the accountability if they are not?
In 2019, the Department of Human Services received at least five complaints “about volunteers allegedly lacking proper clearances," according to records released under the Right-to-Know Law, The York Dispatch and Spotlight PA reported.
One of the complaints was from a retired county detective who had investigated crimes against children. He expressed his concern that “youth programs do not take the required clearances seriously.”
The Department of Human Services failed to intervene in nearly every instance, instead directing those complaining to contact the organization’s insurance carrier or report the organization to the local district attorney’s office.
The latter seems to be a dead end. The York Dispatch and Spotlight PA reported that no one yet has been prosecuted for violating the law.
York County District Attorney Dave Sunday said the state should implement a clear and confidential way to report noncompliance and require that noncompliance be reported to police.
We agree. And we hope new Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams agrees, too, and takes a serious look at background check compliance in this county.
Lancaster County state lawmakers must understand the importance of a strong background check system — one with teeth. We hope they follow up on this issue, too.
They cannot wait until a child is harmed by an adult who had no business being near that child.
In the meantime, organizations entrusted with the safety of children must ensure that their employees and volunteers have up-to-date clearances.
And parents need to ensure that the organizations they are trusting to keep their children safe are making background check compliance a priority.
Don’t trust — verify.
24-hour sexual assault hotline: 717-392-7273
Report suspected child abuse to ChildLine: 800-932-0313