The Issue: In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, experts spent months figuring out how to overhaul Pennsylvania’s child protection laws. State lawmakers passed a package of changes, including one requiring background checks for volunteers who have contact with children. But now there is confusion about some key aspects of the legislation.
Our state lawmakers — including our local delegation and Gov. Tom Corbett — deserve kudos for strengthening protections for Pennsylvania’s children.
The changes, based on lessons learned from the Sandusky nightmare, were long overdue.
There is still, however, work to be done.
Leadership is needed to dispel the confusion over the new law’s requirement of background checks for volunteers.
As LNP found out last week, local school superintendents and nonprofit leaders are not quite sure to whom the new background law applies.
The law says background checks are required of volunteers who are responsible for the welfare of children, or have direct contact or routine interaction with children.
We share the view of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children that background checks should be required for anyone who has unsupervised contact with kids, even if that contact occurs just once.
But there also are other major issues.
A set of new child-protection laws will be implemented beginning Jan. 1, and there is no coordinated, consistent message about the practical details of those laws.
The background check law, in particular, will have a huge impact, not just on schools but on houses of worship, youth organizations and other nonprofits that rely on volunteers.
Beginning in July, volunteers will be required to get a Pennsylvania State Police criminal history record check (cost: $10) and a child abuse history check ($10) conducted by the state Department of Human Services.
Those who have resided outside of Pennsylvania any time in the past 10 years also will need to get an FBI clearance (cost: $27.50).
The background checks will need to be updated every three years.
While the checks are essential to child safety, they may have unintended consequences: Good people who can’t afford the background checks won’t volunteer, and nonprofits that bear the costs are going to be strapped.
Private companies conduct cheaper background checks, but their reliability varies, so relying on state agencies strikes us as a good idea.
There are solutions. The state could waive state fees for some applicants as it does for Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteers. And state Rep. Dan Moul, primary sponsor of the new child protection law, says he’ll go to the Department of Human Services if he hears complaints about the cost of background checks.
Moul, from Adams County, also told LNP that a clarification about who is covered by the background check law might be warranted.
The Center for Children’s Justice has called on Gov.-elect Tom Wolf to give some indication that his transition team is aware of the magnitude of the changes to the child protection laws.
They’d like the Wolf administration to appoint a team to come up with consistent messaging on the new laws, and cultivate child protection strategies across state government. They also want to see support for staff in agencies such as DHS that are already stretched thin.
The center sent a letter to Wolf on Nov. 20 asking that his transition team provide him with “actionable steps” toward these ends.
It was co-signed by more than 110 advocates, including the director of Penn State Children’s Hospital’s Center for the Protection of Children.
So far, there has been no response.
We know the governor-elect is busy. But he shouldn’t be too busy to send some signal — beyond a boilerplate press release — that protecting Pennsylvania’s children will be one of his administration’s priorities.
As Cathleen Palm of the Center for Children’s Justice rightfully says, “Laws are just words on paper. It’s really about the practice, and it’s really about the leadership.”