More than a decade after a youth sports volunteer from Hereford with a record of sex offense charges was convicted of abusing a 12-year-old boy, Baltimore County remains the only jurisdiction in the region that doesn't require background checks for recreation coaches and volunteers.
That could change under a new County Council proposal to make checks mandatory for those who work with children in recreational programs in the county.
"These are the people who have the direct access to your children," said Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation. She said she was shocked to learn the county doesn't have a policy on the issue.
But some have questioned the proposal, saying it might be too costly. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's administration is seeking to delay a vote on the Bevins bill, saying it needs to study the fiscal and operational impacts. The county has 30,000 recreation volunteers, though not all work with children.
Cases of children victimized by abusers who are in positions of trust as coaches and instructors have come to light across the nation. The conviction of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who ran programs for at-risk youth, put an intense spotlight on the issue of protecting children in recreational programs.
In the aftermath of the Sandusky case, the Baltimore-based Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation has focused on preventing sexual abuse in sports, including efforts to make background checks more affordable for youth organizations.
Most recreational departments in Maryland require background checks for volunteers, according to Chuck Montrie, executive director of the Maryland Recreation and Parks Association. National organizations such as the Boy Scouts and the Boys and Girls Club also have made criminal background checks for volunteers mandatory.
In 2000, when the Hereford volunteer was charged, Baltimore officials said they did not have the time or money to screen tens of thousands of volunteers. One official said then that background checks aren't a guarantee of safety and that parents should become involved.
John Warren Leader was convicted of abusing a boy he met through activities sponsored by Hereford Recreation Council. The volunteer had been charged eight years earlier with abuse in a separate case, though those charges had been dropped.
Today, the county recreation department's "parents code of conduct" notes that the county does not provide background checks "because experts, including the Baltimore County Police Department, agree that parental involvement is a more effective means of protecting children." Parents are encouraged, though not required, to sign the document.
Many parents are under the false impression that the county requires background checks, said Leslie Monfred, a member of the county's volunteer Board of Recreation and Parks.
The lack of a policy "means in real terms that any murderer, rapist or pedophile is currently welcome to coach in Baltimore County," Monfred told the County Council on Monday. The council is scheduled to discuss the bill April 29, with a vote in May.
A spokeswoman for Kamenetz said the county executive has directed parks and recreation director Barry Williams to study the issue of background checks, with a report due by the end of summer. Kamenetz thinks study is important "especially given the tremendous cost implications for local recreation councils and its impact on volunteer membership," spokeswoman Fronda Cohen said in a statement.
"The County Executive believes it prudent to have the study in hand before proceeding with legislation," she said in a statement.
But Bevins says there's no reason to delay, calling her bill "a no-brainer." The county would have until July 2015 to start a screening program, which she says is ample time to work out details.
Bevins says cost shouldn't be an obstacle when considering legislation aimed at curbing abuse. "How do you put a cost on something like that, when that changes a child's life forever?" she said. "There is no going back on that."
Bevins pointed to recent security upgrades in county schools and said, "We're adding all these security features to protect our children. Why would we not want to extend it to those fields that are right outside the schools?"
Baltimore County's recreational councils, which run the youth programs, are led by volunteers. The county provides professional guidance, facilities, maintenance and other assistance, but the councils must raise funds for expenses such as supplies and equipment.
Bevins did not have a cost estimate for the mandatory background checks, which she said the Board of Recreation and Parks asked her to introduce. She said her bill allows enough time to determine how to cover costs and other details, including which criminal convictions would bar someone from volunteering.
In 2001, when Anne Arundel County started screening the backgrounds of coaches, 20 were forced to resign. That prompted criticism that the policy of prohibiting anyone with a felony conviction from volunteering was too harsh, especially for those who had drug convictions from years earlier. The county has since revised the policy to more specifically define which crimes would prohibit someone from volunteering.