Official: Background checks must be thorough to prevent child abuseThe cost of thorough checks — $50 to $100 — can add up for groups already strapped for money, said Beth Olson, executive director of First Witness Child Advocacy Center in Duluth. And some checks provide limited information.
By: Mike Creger and Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Youth organizations can best protect themselves and the children they serve by conducting thorough background checks of the adults hired to coach, teach and mentor.
That’s according to Beth Olson, executive director of First Witness Child Advocacy Center in Duluth.
But the cost of thorough checks — $50 to $100 — can add up for groups already strapped for money, Olson said, and some checks provide only limited information. For example, a criminal background check lists only convictions, and may provide information from only one state.
“That’s not very thorough,” Olson said.
She said a better practice would be to go through a national database of convictions and social service agencies that can list investigations and charges where there is no conviction. “That would be the ideal,” she said.
The Duluth Salvation Army, which has had two former coaches charged with sexual assault in the last 13 months, declined to answer questions from the News Tribune about how it conducts background checks of its coaches.
One of the former coaches, Peter Jay Olson (not related to Beth Olson), also coached for Lake Park Little League in eastern Duluth. Each spring, when coaches submit new applications, the Little League group checks the National Sex Offender Public Registry to see if the applicant’s name is on it.
Even though Peter Olson was under investigation for possession of child pornography, and later for sexual assault of a preteen boy, nothing showed up on the registry because it lists only convicted, registered sex offenders.
Youth organizations can protect children without spending money, Beth Olson said. They should have firm policies written out for staff, parents and children — an example being a “no alone time with kids” policy. Under that policy, a child waiting for a ride home couldn’t get a lift from a staffer.
“It’s best to have some sort of separation,” Olson said. “That’s the biggest thing groups can do; eliminate that one-to-one.”
The Boy Scouts of America conducts a national criminal background check administered by LexisNexis, which Voyageurs Area Council Scout Executive and CEO David Nolle said is “a nationally respected third party that also provides this service to local, state and federal governments; educational institutions; and other nonprofits.”
Nolle said the Voyageurs Area Council also follows a “barriers to abuse” policy that mirrors the one described by First Witness’ Beth Olson.
“We never have an adult solo with youth,” Nolle said. “It’s a long-standing practice to combat the societal problem of child abuse.”
Just checking national databases for criminal records of candidates isn’t enough, Nolle said.
“The one thing experts tell us that we continue to see is there is no profile. You can’t say, ‘A-ha. He has purple hair so he must be a child abuser,’” he said. “They, many times, have no criminal record.”
Nolle said his organization works to educate kids that there isn’t a fail-safe method to screen out abusers. It focuses on “three R’s”: to recognize that anyone can be a child molester, to resist advances and to report abuse to trusted adults.
Clergy, employees and volunteers for the Catholic Diocese of Duluth undergo background checks and complete youth protection training before beginning with the organization and have it repeated every five years. They also must read and agree to a sexual misconduct policy and code of pastoral conduct policy.
Debbie Caron’s 11-year-old son played for Peter Olson on a Duluth Salvation Army basketball team for three years, and her 24-year-old son had him as a coach when he was younger. Caron said she expects more thorough vetting of coaches in the future, but “when they have (no prior records), how do you know?”
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