Background checks on volunteers essential to keep kids safe |

Background checks on volunteers essential to keep kids safe

Just last month it happened at South Lake Tahoe. A convicted sex offender got where he wanted to be – near children.

Deputies arrested a 32-year-old man Oct. 30 after receiving reports that he bothered two girls at Terror in Paradise, a haunted house held for charity in Meyers. County prosecutors charged Lawrence Gene Simmons with annoying or molesting a child, a felony that he had been convicted of in Sacramento County in 1992 and Placer County in 1993.

How did he slip through the cracks so easily?

“It opened our eyes,” said Dean Baumfleck, 37, an organizer of Terror in Paradise. “He was the only volunteer we didn’t know. If you’re going to do it with people you don’t know it’s Russian roulette. This eventually had to happen.”

Next year, Baumfleck said he might make the house smaller so he can hire only people he knows or may require parents to be with their children when they take the terror tour.

“We want background checks but we really haven’t discussed it,” he said. “We’re going to have to make some changes. Any volunteers we do get we’ll run background checks on them. But we did notice the activity. We got this guy before anything happened.”

Today conducting background checks on volunteers is a realistic option. With the growing popularity of LiveScan, a machine that records a person’s fingerprints electronically, the act of checking a person’s background for criminal convictions is more realistic.

In 1997, California began requiring a background check for anyone applying for a job at a school. Along with the new law, Department of Justice handed out more than 140 LiveScans to sheriff departments and school districts. Los Angeles County has nine LiveScans because of its large population of students.

South Lake Tahoe has two, one at the El Dorado County Sheriff substation and one at the police department. The machines, with a printer, cost $49,500 each. The sheriff’s department charges $12 to take fingerprints. The police are in the process of setting up its machine but plan to charge the same rate.

The fingerprints recorded by LiveScan are sent to the state’s Department of Justice in Sacramento. Then, if required or desired, the images are sent on to the FBI to be processed in a national fingerprint database.

It costs $32 for a background check in California plus an extra $24 to $28 for an FBI check. In some cases certain volunteer organizations are not charged a fee for an in-state background check.

“That (cost) as much as anything governs if further than a state search is done,” said Mike Van Winkle, a spokesman for Department of Justice. “Lots of organizations will do only state checks because there is no cost.”

In their last fiscal year, Department of Justice conducted 1.3 million background checks. Before making checks for school employees mandatory, they processed about 500,000 to 600,000 prints a year.

Despite the advantages of LiveScan, about 70 percent of fingerprints the Department of Justice receives are ink and paper. Van Winkle said those prints are entered into LiveScan, which tacks on an extra three days to a process that can take from four days to more than a month depending on the number of criminal convictions that turn up. On average, 90 percent of the background checks find a clean record.

Many organizations at South Lake Tahoe that hire volunteers, such as Boys & Girls Club and Tahoe Youth and Family Services, use LiveScan to conduct background checks.

Groups such as Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of America use volunteer applications that require at least three references that go through a rigorous review process. They then send the applications to their national headquarters and cross reference them with a list of applicants they had previously rejected.

Pop Warner Football and Little League Baseball at South Shore also use applications to screen their volunteers. The form allows the sport organizations to check an applicants background if they so chose.

Pop Warner’s application for coaches states: “By my signature below and the initial at the end of this sentence I authorize Sagebrush Empire at their convenience to make arrangements for a fingerprint check and police background check. I further understand that refusal by me to comply with a police background check will justify voiding of this application.”

Melinda Garratt, who is serving her second year as president of Pop Warner at South Shore, said their hiring policy may change.

“We are thinking of just going ahead to fingerprinting everybody instead of picking one or two,” she said. “We have the ability and we’re thinking of doing it. As we all know our kids are out five nights a week, so it’s important to know who is taking care of your kid.”

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