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With Summer Around the Corner, Schumer Pushes For Critical Legislation That Will Allow Summer Camps & Other Organizations Access to Federal Background Check of New Employees and Volunteers

Schumer Will Highlight The Fact That Child-Serving Organizations Want The Ability To Conduct Sex Offender Background Checks On Prospective Employees To Protect Children, But Cannot Access National FBI Sex Offender Database 

Schumer Bill Would Give Summer Camps Greater Access To Screen New Employees And Keep Our Children Safe 

During a conference call with reporters, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today launched a campaign to pass his bipartisan legislation that would close the gaping hole in the federal law that prevents summer camps and other not-for-profit organizations that work with children from gaining access to federal sex offender background checks on new employees and volunteers. Schumer explained that, under current law, many children’s summer camps, day cares, charity organizations and more only have access to New York State’s criminal database. Because this is the only resource most local groups have access to, and because they cannot access FBI sex offender databases, they often lack records of criminal activity committed out of state. Because the FBI databases are widely considered the most accurate and complete criminal databases, Schumer said it is critical these summer camps and other organizations put in charge of caring for children have access to these records when hiring employees. Schumer is therefore urging his colleagues in Congress to pass bi-partisan legislation, Child Protection Improvements and Electronic Life and Safety Security Systems Act of 2015, which would grant youth-serving organizations access to FBI background checks for volunteers and new employees.

“Right now, there is a serious gap in federal law that is making it harder for summer camps, day cares and other child-serving organizations to fully screen their paid and volunteer applicants. These groups, tasked with ensuring the safety of children day in and day out, should never have any difficulty when it comes to accessing the FBI background checks they need to ensure dangerous predators are not allowed anywhere near our kids,” said Schumer. “That’s why I’m putting on the full court press and urging my colleagues to pass this commonsense, bi-partisan legislation. As a parent, I know there is nothing more important than keeping our children safe from harm. Parents deserve the peace of mind knowing that their children are in good hands when they drop them off at camp and other afterschool programs.”

Many organizations and programs rely heavily on volunteers and employees to provide services and care to children. These individuals coach soccer games, mentor young people, run youth camps, and are involved with children in many other ways. It’s estimated that over 15 million adults nationwide volunteer for education or youth program groups. Therefore, Schumer said the organizations that are tasked with taking care of our children must have access to the most updated and comprehensive sex offender records. However, according to Schumer, the current system of obtaining a background check for child-serving groups is not nearly as accessible as it should be, particularly when it comes to out-of-state records. Just about one-third of states allow a range of youth-serving organizations to access FBI searches, but New York is not one of them. And, even when those searches are available, they can be cost-prohibitive and time-consuming for summer camps and organizations on a budget. Schumer said this could discourage many groups from obtaining the background checks. Under current law, an organization must apply for a background check through its state, and for each employee. Only a handful of states allow access to FBI checks through this process.

In New York State, there are two ways to get access to background checks. An individual can get access to his own criminal history records by requesting them from the state and paying a fee. In addition, a mentoring organization, like summer camp, can register with the state to get access to state fingerprint checks. Notably, though, this will only involve an individual’s New York records. As of 2010, over 40 percent of the individuals with criminal records had committed an offense in a state other than where they were applying to volunteer, meaning that a state-only search would not have found relevant criminal records. Schumer noted that an applicant to be a camp counselor, for example, could have been convicted of an assault in Ohio, or committed a sex crime in Florida, but there may be no record of it in New York’s database.

Schumer pointed to the 2013 case of a Schuyler County man named Daryl Vonneida, who served as a Boy Scout leader, church counselor and soccer and baseball coach, and was convicted and found guilty on 14 criminal counts after sexually abusing children for more than 40 years. A quick, thorough national background check might have turned up Vonneida’s past convictions and prevented his hire at any youth-serving organization or not-for-profit. Many of the hold ups with Vonneida’s case came from old record keeping and difficulty accessing information, but a federal background check would have found his 1989 first degree sexual abuse conviction. Schumer argued that even though it can’t be known whether this bill would have stopped Vonneida, it could help stop the next predator before that person can work with kids.

The Child Protection Improvements and Electronic Life and Safety Security Systems Act of 2015 would create a nationally accessible background check solution for youth-serving organizations, and ensure access to federal FBI fingerprint background checks. Specifically, this legislation would do the following:

  • Facilitate widespread access to nationwide background searches, by requiring the Attorney General to designate a team to process state and federal background checks on prospective employees and volunteers for youth-serving organizations and for employees in the electronic life safety and security systems industry.
  • Provide participating organizations with reliable and accurate information as to whether an individual’s criminal record bears upon his fitness to work or volunteer with children. After a check is run, an employer will be notified if an applicant has a conviction or open arrest for any offenses like crimes of violence, crimes against children, and sex offenses, among others. The employer can then make the determination of whether to go ahead with the hiring.

Schumer explained that individuals are provided an opportunity to challenge the accuracy and completeness of their records with the FBI and are ensured that the privacy of their records will be protected. This bill is entirely paid for by fees from the entities seeking background checks, and requires no new authorizations or appropriations. In addition, this bill does not impose any new or unfunded mandates on the states.

On the call, Schumer provided an example of how this process would work: If a summer camp in Central New York wanted to hire a paid or volunteer counselor, they could call DOJ’s new 1-800 number and find out where to get the background check done locally. Mostly likely this would be at the local police station where systems are already in place to make it a smooth process. The organization would pay a processing fee at the police station and they would send the counselor’s fingerprints to the federal Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ would then run the fingerprints through the FBI’s records, which cover both state and federal crimes in every state, not just in New York. The school would then hear the results from DOJ – not a full personal record, but whether the paid or volunteer counselor had a serious conviction or open arrest for a serious offense.

According to the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Service, there were 16,758 registered sex offenders in Upstate New York as of June 2016. On the call, Schumer provided county by county data of the number of registered sex offenders in NYS as of June 2016:

In the Capital Region, there were 2,548 registered sex offenders as of June 2016.

In Central New York, there were 3,090 registered sex offenders as of June 2016.

In Western New York, there were 2,490 registered sex offenders as of June 2016.

In the Rochester-Finger Lakes, there were 2,743 registered sex offenders as of June 2016.

In the Southern Tier, there were 2,195 registered sex offenders as of June 2016.

In the Hudson Valley, there were 1,965 registered sex offenders as of June 2016.

In the North Country, there were 1,727 registered sex offenders as of June 2016.

Statistics from the now-expired PROTECT Act Child Safety Pilot, which was passed in 2003 as a part of the PROTECT Act, demonstrate the importance of a nationwide fingerprint-based FBI criminal background check. The Pilot program helped many of the same organizations that would be served by Schumer’s bill; by working with the state governments to give access to FBI fingerprint background checks to youth-serving organizations. As of September 2010, of 77,000 background checks performed through the pilot in seven years, over 6 percent of volunteers were found to have a criminal record of concern – including very serious offenses like sexual abuse of minors, assaults, murder, and serious drug offenses. In addition, over 40 percent of the individuals with criminal records had committed an offense in a state other than where they were applying to volunteer, meaning that a state-only search would not have found relevant criminal records.

Schumer also noted that fingerprint background checks have become increasingly important since name-based background checks have a higher incidence of “false positives” or inaccurate information. In fact, nearly 23 percent of the individuals screened by the pilot provided a different name or date of birth on their application than what appeared on the criminal record. A name-based search would likely not have caught these criminal records. Schumer’s legislation would make running a fingerprint background check easier for youth-serving organizations.