Checking on the coach [Editorial]

Even before news of the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal broke several years ago, parents had long been wary of leaving youngsters in the hands of strangers, and justifiably so. Those who assume the role of a coach, like that of a teacher or clergyman, deserve some extra scrutiny because of the potential risks and vulnerabilities involved.

So why not mandate that all recreational coaches and volunteers go through background checks? Clearly, the goal is worthwhile — to reduce the incidence of child abuse. And since most jurisdictions in the Baltimore area already have such a mandate, why not require those same background checks in Baltimore County?

That's exactly what Baltimore County Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins has proposed. She said she was shocked to discover that background checks weren't already required. And while the list of incidents of child sexual abuse by volunteer recreational coaches in Baltimore County is quite short — the most recent example having taken place more than a decade ago — preventing them would seem worthwhile.

But not so fast. How would such a mandate work, and would it be worth the cost? That's a lot less clear, and it demonstrates how an issue like background checks, one that sounds like a no-brainer, is actually a great deal more complicated than Ms. Bevins and other well-meaning supporters may realize.

Unlike other jurisdictions, Baltimore County leaves the administration of recreational programs — for example soccer, baseball, lacrosse, basketball and even many non-sports activities like chess, dance and knitting classes — in the hands of non-profit recreation councils. The county takes on the role of landlord, making its fields and gymnasiums available, but it's the parent-volunteers who set up and administer the programs.

Recreation councils have long had the option of requiring background checks, and some do. But in a county where there are an estimated 30,000 volunteers, some councils have made the calculation that background checks aren't worthwhile. Instead of background checks, many have simply encouraged all parents to get involved in sports or other activities as volunteers and spectators.

And that makes a lot of sense. For large and well-established organizations like the Lutherville-Timonium Recreation Council, it's rare to attend a practice or game without a dozen parents in attendance. Under those circumstances, background checks seem redundant, given that coaches are rarely, if ever, without considerable supervision. Even the county school system does not require formal background checks of parents who sign up to volunteer in schools for much the same reason — they aren't left alone.

Indeed, the danger is that not only will the collaborative, everybody-pitches-in nature of county recreational programs be compromised but that parents may be lulled into a false sense of security by the existence of a background check. Just because a volunteer has never been convicted of abuse does not mean it will never happen in the future. Will parents actually be barred from helping out with a son or daughter's team midway through a season — shagging fly balls or running lacrosse drills — because they weren't given a background check beforehand? And what will preclude someone from being a coach — a DUI conviction, a drug possession charge that dates to their college days, a misdemeanor assault?

County officials, including Barry F. Williams, the director of recreation and parks, have promised to study the issue and make recommendations this summer. We would urge the council to wait and hear the results. This may be a classic case of unintended consequences — particularly if background checks prove a greater burden than can be justified.

Meanwhile, if county government is going to mandate background checks — at a cost of $15-$20 per coach — we would expect it to at least share in the expense. It's one thing for recreation councils to pass along the costs of their programs to participants, as they do routinely, it's another to go over the heads of those parent-volunteers, decide how they should run their programs, and then stick them with the bill.

This much is certain: Everyone wants children to be safe. And considering the hundreds of thousands of youngsters who participate in programs sponsored by Baltimore County's recreation councils and the rarity of abuse related to those activities, they are safe now. Will background checks make them safer yet? The jury is out.

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