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Fallout from child protection law felt in Pa. churches, libraries, fields | TribLIVE.com
Pennsylvania

Fallout from child protection law felt in Pa. churches, libraries, fields

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Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
(L-R) Mattox Zelenak, 6, of Norvelt, volunteers Bonnie Hoffer, Amanda Martin and Cameron Martin, 5, of Unity Township, participate in a craft project during the Armbrust Wesleyan Church's Vacation Bible School in Hunker on Monday, July 27, 2015.

Soon after the Diocese of Greensburg started mandating that volunteers have criminal background checks and child abuse clearances, the number of people donating their time to be cooks, eucharistic ministers, even ushers, started to drop.

“What’s really hard is when you lose your Sunday school teachers,” said Virginia Long, secretary at the partner parishes of St. Ambrose in Avonmore, St. Matthew in Saltsburg and St. Sylvester in Slickville, which lost a handful of volunteers and has the challenging task of trying to replace them.

Welcome to the reality of living in the post-Jerry Sandusky world.

The fallout from Pennsylvania’s rules requiring Department of Human Services child abuse background clearances and state police criminal records checks for employees and volunteers who have “routine contact with children” is being felt in churches, libraries, playgrounds, swimming pools and on Little League and soccer fields across the commonwealth.

It affects “coaches, assistant coaches, basically anybody who’s going to be around kids,” said Matt Potts, president of the Tri-City Soccer Association in Lower Burrell. “It absolutely has to be.”

The state toughened child protection laws because of the Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State University and extended the child abuse clearance and background check mandate to include volunteers. The changes, which were initially slated to take effect July 1 until the deadline for compliance was extended to Aug. 25, has caused requests for these kinds of checks to skyrocket.

From January through May, the state Department of Human Services received 512,853 child abuse clearance applications. Numbers for June and July have not been finalized. During the same period last year, 225,174 clearances were processed.

State police said they completed 402,556 more background checks during the first six months of this year as opposed to the same period last year. The just more than 1 million background checks completed by June of this year puts the agency on track to surpass the 1.3 million background checks completed in 2014.

The cost of the state checks was initially $10 each but that cost was recently waived for volunteers when lawmakers received a series of complaints from school and parent-teacher groups, nonprofits, sports league directors and coaches, The state lowered to $8 the fee for other applicants, such as those who require background checks when being hired for a job.

The law requires those who have not been a continuous resident of the commonwealth for the past 10 years to obtain an FBI criminal background clearance, which costs $27.50. The FBI hasn’t changed its fees.

Misty Chybrzynski, spokeswoman for the Highlands School District, said parents are more open to the background checks since the state fee has been waived.

“Everybody breathed a sigh of relief,” she said. “A lot of people, at first, were a little bit weary of it.”

Chybrzynski said the district has had more parents coming in to sign up to volunteer in the past week since the fee was waived.

“Basically, it is completely free for them if they’ve been a resident for the past 10 years,” she said.

Some parents are questioning why their teenage sons and daughters have to submit to such scrutiny to obtain summer jobs as lifeguards.

“They’re upset,” said Kelly Genard, manager at Youngwood Park & Pool. “They just don’t want their kids in the system.”

The Greensburg diocese imposed the rules on its more than 7,600 volunteers this month.

“We interpret the law to mean everybody who is near children,” spokesman Jerry Zufelt said.

That has forced some volunteers to reconsider, although the exodus hasn’t been as bad as church leaders thought it might be.

“Those who left did so for philosophical, not procedural, reasons,” said the Rev. Sam Lamendola, pastor at St. Ambrose and St. Matthew parishes. “They felt it was an intrusion, and they were targeting the wrong people.”

Some churches have had to scramble to get the necessary clearances for events planned months ago.

“It’s a big thing … affecting everybody,” said Beth Stradling, childrens’ youth ministry director at Armbrust Wesleyan Church, who was rushing to get clearances for some of the 55 volunteers needed for the start of her vacation Bible school.

“We started planning this six months ago,” she said.

Genard, who serves as president and general manager of the Foothills Soccer Club, thinks lawmakers went too far.

“Believe me, I understand, but this is absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “We have 14-year-old referees who have to get clearances.”

For some Catholics, the tighter rules are nothing new.

Since 2007, the Diocese of Pittsburgh has required background checks and clearances for its 43,000 employees and volunteers.

The edict applies to “anyone who represents the church in any way,” said Phyllis Haney, safe environment coordinator for the diocese.

There was some nervousness about the scope of that mandate at first.

“The priests said ‘we’re going to lose all our volunteers,’ ” said Haney. “We lost some, a few.”

The YMCA has been requiring the three clearances for years.

“I tell parents we’re doing our due diligence to make sure children are safe,” said George O’Brien, chief executive officer of the Greensburg YMCA. “It’s a necessary inconvenience.”

The Sonward Youth Program in New Kensington that offers sports camps and weekly art and music classes has been requiring the clearances as part of its “up-front criteria” since 2011.

“I use it to weed out people who shouldn’t be volunteering,” said Kim Louis, who has been running youth organizations for 20 years. If a potential volunteer won’t submit to the checks, they’re not allowed to participate in the program.

A number of other organizations are opting for the stricter interpretation, as well.

The Westmoreland Library Network has recommended its member libraries obtain all three clearances for volunteers and employees, even though it “probably will discourage some people from volunteering,” said Cesare Muccari, executive director.

Muccari said dropping some fees and lowering others may help stem the tide of those leaving.

“Before the changes were made, I thought it would have a big impact,” he said. “Now that the fees have changed, I think it mitigated some of that. It’s a different ballgame now.”

The prospect of losing a key component of their organization concerns groups that live or die by volunteers.

“We have head coaches, assistant coaches, parents helping out,” said Tom Hussey, president of the Norwin Community Athletic Association, or NCAA. “We’re a volunteer organization; if we don’t have volunteers, we don’t have the organization.”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or [email protected]. sold

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