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‘False sense of security’: Carroll sheriff, legislator seek more background checks after youth coach accused of sexual abuse

Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees questioned how a youth sports coach who is accused of sexually abusing a minor could go from “organization to organization” after rec sports groups received complaints about his inappropriate behavior around kids.

During an Aug. 5 news conference announcing the arrest of Michael Vincent Bonczewski, DeWees said that state lawmakers should enhance the policies in place to prevent it from happening again. He soon received a call from Del. Haven Shoemaker, a Republican representing District 5, accepting the challenge.

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Bonczewski, 38, of Parkville, who faces charges that include second-degree rape, sexual abuse of a minor and child porn solicitation after a victim reported the alleged abuse from 10 years ago to police earlier this year.

Bonczewski worked in multiple youth and sports-related organizations, including Manchester Valley High School and North Carroll Recreational League football programs, as well as programs in the Baltimore area and Pennsylvania, police said.

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DeWees said in an interview that he wants more comprehensive background checks for people working with children, going a step further than fingerprinting.

“Those fingerprints are only as good as the individual having an arrest record,” DeWees said. “I think it’s a false sense of security.”

He added that it is not easy for children, or even adults, to report their abuse, which makes it easier for predators to continue to abuse children.

Police said Bonczewski worked with a dozen youth organizations in Carroll and Baltimore counties, as well as in Pennsylvania, from 2004 to 2019. He was a volunteer assistant football coach at North Carroll Recreational League between 2009 and 2010, and an assistant coach for Manchester Valley High School’s football program for the 2011-2012 season.

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According to police, multiple organizations received complaints about Bonczewski’s relationship with children, like talking with them on social media or holding one-on-one workouts with athletes without authorization, that led to him being let gofrom those organizations.

DeWees said those complaints may not have risen to the level of criminal activity. However, the root of the problem, he added, was that Bonczewski was able to be hired at other organizations without hiring staff “making phone calls and checking records” for possible complaints made against him.

The sheriff said he envisioned a clearing house or center repository responsible for the youth sports coaches and volunteer background checks.

Shoemaker said he’d be happy to sponsor legislation that addresses the issue heading into the 2022 session.

“We have to make sure coaches and people in positions of trust and power who interact with our kids can’t do this sort of thing in the future,” Shoemaker said. “There needs to be legislative action to try to short circuit predators from bouncing from program to program and preying upon kids.”

Shoemaker said he is still in the early stages with the potential bill, and his legislative aide is doing research to see if there is existing legislation elsewhere in the country that Maryland could model a bill after.

Shoemaker is also a candidate in the 2022 election for Carroll County state’s attorney.

Existing background checks

Community recreational organizations, like the North Carroll rec league where Bonczewski volunteered, are overseen by the Carroll County Government’s Recreation and Parks department.

Jeff Degitz, director of county parks and rec, said the current background check process it uses for any paid employee working with youth is mandated by a Maryland law from 1985. It involves fingerprinting and keeping the names of the employees on a roster. If an employee commits a new crime, the database is updated and future agencies can see it.

But that feature doesn’t exist for volunteers in the system, Degitz said. Instead, volunteers are required to sign-up for online background check again the following year if they want to participate again.

Maryland law does not make background checks mandatory for volunteers, however, he said.

Before 2016, the county rec department used to simply have volunteers load their names in a database, Degitz said. Now, the county government has a contractor that performs background checks online for the volunteers working with children.

“I think there’s a lot of factors to consider,” Degitz said about background check improvements, adding that rec leagues must put kids’ safety first and discourage people who have had “issues in the past.”

“We also have to balance that to get and retain volunteers,” Degitz said. “We want to make sure we have the right people.”

In 2019, Maryland lawmakers passed House Bill 486 — Shoemaker was one of more than two dozen co-sponsors — which requires an applicant for a position in schools and contract agencies involving direct contact with minors to submit certain information and for the agency to review the employment history of certain applicants before hiring them.

“This bill sets forth a process, including requirements for specific documentation regarding whether an individual has ever been disciplined for allegations of ‘child sexual abuse’ or ‘sexual misconduct,’ for the hiring of public school and nonpublic school employees who have direct contact with minors,” the bill’s text states.

Jon O’Neal, chief operating officer for Carroll County Public Schools, said the background checks the school system had in place for all staff prior to HB 486 was to list current and former employers and, as Maryland law mandated, checking fingerprints for all employees.

It was the process in place when Bonczewski was employed with CCPS. Now with HB 486, O’Neal said it “requires another, more thorough level” of reference and background checks. The former employers are asked if the applicant should work in a capacity with children and the system has to make an effort to receive those responses prior to employment.

The applicant is, however, allowed to start the job before the system receives responses from the employer but the applicant must be supervised while with students.

But Shoemaker said he doesn’t think HB 486 is enough to prevent someone from jumping one organization to another the way Bonczewski did.

“That legislation helps, but I think we need to take it a step further,” he said.

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