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Baltimore implements background checks for recreation program volunteers


It used to be that volunteers in Baltimore's recreation programs for youngsters needed only a lot of enthusiasm and a little athletic know-how. Starting July 1, they'll also need to pass criminal background checks.

The new policy comes in response to public worries about sexual abuse of children, said Richard Przybylowski, a spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks.

"We haven't had any problems," Mr. Przybylowski said. "But everyone's been thinking about this for the last four or five years. Programs are going to have to come into place to deal with this."

State law already requires that public employees who work with youngsters must submit to fingerprinting and an investigation of their backgrounds. But the state does not require any special clearance for volunteers.

In many areas, volunteers who work with children -- the soccer coaches, the Little League umpires, the softball coordinators -- far outnumber the paid staff. And they often work more closely with children than the public employees.

Baltimore Recreation and Parks Director Marlyn J. Perritt decided that the background checks should be extended to volunteers as well.

"Things have happened in other places," Mr. Przybylowski said. "The public is very aware of this."

Last week, a volunteer baseball coach in Columbia was accused of masturbating in front of a 14-year-old boy at a private practice session. After his arrest, a check of the coach's background showed he was on probation for a 1989 sexual offense involving a 12-year-old boy.

In changing its policy for volunteers, Baltimore becomes the first government in the area to include unpaid coaches and assistants in the background checks. Recreation officials in suburban counties send their employees for fingerprinting and background checks. Volunteers are not routinely investigated, though staff members may check references.

In places such as Baltimore County, where a vast recreation program depends largely on volunteers, the job of checking backgrounds would be massive.

There, more than 50,000 volunteers give more than 1 million hours to recreation programs, said Robert Knoerlein, a superintendent in the county's Department of Recreation and Parks. The county pays 2,500 to 3,000 recreation and parks workers.

"Investigating volunteers would be unbelievably burdensome," Mr. Knoerlein said. The background checks also cost $41 -- which Baltimore County charges the job applicant.

Asking volunteers to cover that cost "certainly would hurt our recruiting," Mr. Knoerlein said.

Anne Arundel, Carroll, Howard and Harford counties also follow state law and require background checks of paid staff, not volunteers.

"We've never even really considered background checks on [volunteers] because in the majority of cases a volunteer would never be solely responsible for a group of children," said Jay Cuccia, assistant director of the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks. "They'd be in the company of a paid staff person."

Meanwhile, as they train volunteers for work in summer sports programs, directors are taking care to offer some cautions:

"Years ago, simply putting your arm around the child or patting him on the back, you'd do that to congratulate a child," said Tom Ronaghan, a program coordinator in Arbutus for the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks.

"Well, today that may be taken the wrong way. It could be misconstrued," Mr. Ronaghan said. "We warn them to be very careful. Putting your arm around someone could be totally misconstrued."

But reports of adults acting suspiciously around children are very rare, according to recreation employees in the counties.

"When I hear from parents, it's usually because they don't like the coach acting like a drill sergeant or they don't think their child is playing enough," said Norman Knoerlein, a program coordinator in eastern Baltimore County.

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