New child abuse background checks law not going away despite ‘growing pains’

Despite the “growing pains” associated with the state’s new requirements for child protection, lawmakers are showing no willingness to back away from the background clearances now mandated for almost anyone whose job or volunteer work brings them in contact with children.

The House Children and Youth Committee discussed the new child abuse and criminal history background checks law, one of 23 new child protection laws enacted in the last two years, and angst that it has caused since taking effect on Dec. 31.

Committee chairwoman Kathy Watson, R-Bucks, tried to put a positive spin on the problems associated with the law’s implementation.

She said the overwhelming number of questions that have been raised about the law and increasing numbers of people obtaining clearances shows the attention being paid to protecting children has never been greater.

“There are problems there that we know but they are working on them,” she said. Watson repeatedly reminded the committee that change is difficult for some people and the background checks law is only one month old.

The background checks law expands the categories of people who must obtain child abuse clearances and state – and in some cases, federal – criminal background checks to almost anyone who comes in contact with children at work or in a volunteer capacity.  Those clearances must be updated every three years.

Cathy Utz, a deputy secretary from the state Department of Human Services, which is charged with implementing the background checks law, told the committee that some of the problems that have arisen from the background check law’s implementation stem from inadequate staffing to handle the deluge of child abuse clearance requests that have come in.

She said 10 additional employees started on Monday. They assist with entering information into the computer system from the child abuse clearance requests that arrive in the mail. Twenty-five more employees will soon be hired to assist with that work as well as processing the clearances and answering calls that come in to ChildLine, the state’s hotline for reporting suspected child abuse, she said.

“We recognize that they may not alleviate all of our issues today or tomorrow,” she told the committee. But “we do have a plan for how we’ll get through this.”

In addition to being understaffed for the workload brought on by the new laws, the other struggles that the department has encountered relate to the new computer system that became operational on the same day the background checks law took effect.

She said they are continuing to work through bugs in that system.

Coupling that with the department’s mission of implementing the 23 new child protection laws, Utz said, “we recognize there are going to be challenges. And so I think what we’re really trying to do is stay ahead of some of those challenges.”

Representatives from the House and Senate, along with some from various state agencies involved with the implementation of the child protection laws, have been meeting regularly to discuss the hiccups arising from the implementation of what is described as the first comprehensive update to child protection laws in two decades.

Committee executive director Greg Grasa said the focus of those gatherings has been to identify areas of the new laws that may require further clarification to the law, such as who must obtain the clearances which he said has been the subject of countless phone calls.

He also indicated that some Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Dan Moul, R-Gettysburg, who authored the background checks law, have suggested waiving the fees for volunteers to obtain the clearances to avoid that cost becoming a deterrent to volunteering.

But Utz seemed to resist that idea. She told the committee the department incurs costs in processing the clearances even if they are done using the department’s new online child abuse clearance application system.

Plus, she said waiving the fees for volunteers could open the door to requests for more waivers from others who are required to obtain the clearances such as foster parents.

“It would just continue to perpetually cascade,” Utz said.

Besides, she said more than 61,000 volunteers obtained clearances in 2013 before it was mandatory because their organizations required it, so it hasn’t proven to be as much a deterrent as some feared.

Since Dec. 31, Utz said over 57,000 requests for child abuse clearances have come in to the department.