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Bill would require background checks for Balto. Co. recreation volunteers

Laws and LegislationFinanceCathy BevinsCourts and the Judiciary

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.

Some of Baltimore County's 40 recreation councils conduct background checks on their own, but there's no policy and no consistent practice, said Michael Weber, chairman of the Board of Recreation and Parks.

"There was really sporadic implementation," Weber said. "What we're hoping is that we can get a consistent policy in place throughout Baltimore County."

Cost can be a barrier for many organizations, said Steve Salem, president of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which works to help disadvantaged youth through baseball and softball programs.

"To do it right, it's very expensive," he said. "It's overwhelming for most organizations financially. It's overwhelming in terms of understanding the issue."

After the Penn State scandal, the Ripken foundation provided resources to organizations across the country, including a model child protection policy, online training and information on where to get background checks for $12.95 per person.

"The only thing unique about the Sandusky case was his celebrity," Salem said. "It happens every single day in every single state."

Several other high-profile cases have come to light in Maryland.

Edgewater martial arts instructor Jason Alexander was charged in February with sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl who was a student at the studio; a trial is scheduled this summer. And last year, former swimming coach Rick Curl, who founded the Curl-Burke Swim Club in the Washington suburbs, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a student in the 1980s.

In 2008, Richard David Morris, who had volunteered for the city's Roosevelt Recreation Center in Hampden, was convicted in Baltimore County of sexually abusing a boy he befriended through sports activities.

Baltimore City and the surrounding counties — other than Baltimore County — require background checks for volunteers.

Harford County began a new policy requiring the background checks this year. There, recreational councils are responsible for covering the cost. The cost per screening ranges from $6 to $15 per person, officials said.

Anne Arundel County has required screenings for about a decade and contracts with a third-party company to conduct them, according to recreation and parks Director Rick Anthony. Volunteer applicants pay $7 for the screening and can fill out an application online. The county also maintains a list of volunteers on its website and includes the dates of their background checks.

The county turns away several volunteer applicants per season based on criminal histories, Anthony said.

In Carroll County, a county employee screens volunteers through online state court records, said Jeff Degitz, administrator of the parks and recreation department there.

Howard County pays for a third-party vendor to run the checks and covers the costs from the county budget, said Ann Combs, manager of volunteers and special projects for the parks and recreation department. The program cost about $17,000 in 2012, the last year for which data was available, she said. Each screening costs $16.50, she said.

Experts say background checks can be an important tool, especially because sex offenders often seek out activities where they can develop relationships with children and their families. Still, the screenings can give youth organizations a false sense of security, said Jolie Logan, CEO of Darkness to Light, a South Carolina-based group that works to prevent child sexual abuse.

Logan said background screening is just one facet of preventing abuse. Organizations also must teach staff and volunteers about signs of abuse and grooming, the process by which perpetrators draw in their victims, she said.

About 60 percent of sexual abuse offenders are known to the victim but are not a family member, she said.

"We know that perpetrators are drawn to environments where they can establish trusting relationships with both parents and with children, because that's part of the grooming process," she said.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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Checking backgrounds

Most jurisdictions in the Baltimore region require background checks on recreation coaches and volunteers.

•Anne Arundel County: Yes

•Baltimore City: Yes

•Baltimore County: No, though some individual recreation councils do

•Carroll County: Yes

•Harford County: Yes

•Howard County: Yes

Source: city and county governments

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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