HARRISBURG – If you want to help kids in Pennsylvania, you may need to get out your checkbook.
A rewritten child protection law requires anyone working with or volunteering with children to submit to two separate state background checks, at a cost of $10 apiece.
That includes parents who want to help out at school, Sunday school teachers and youth sports coaches.
School districts, churches and youth groups are left to decide whether to foot the bill or ask would-be volunteers to pay for their own screenings by the state police and Department of Human Services.
In addition, all school employees and volunteers who've moved into Pennsylvania in the last decade must get an FBI criminal background check, which involves submitting fingerprints. Those screenings cost $27.50 to $28.75.
All checks must be repeated every three years. The law also requires school employees who underwent background checks when they were hired to get updated screenings every three years.
The updated law was one of the final pieces of a raft of legislation passed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. The law took effect Jan. 1, but the deadlines for getting background checks are still months away.
It's stirring controversy among do-gooders who grumbled about why the state is charging for checks that are meant to protect children, said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice in Bernville, which lobbied for the rewritten child law.
The state police check criminal records. The Department of Human Services searches for indications of evidence that an individual committed child abuse, even if no charges were filed, said agency spokeswoman Kathaleen Gillis.
“This impacts thousands and thousands of people,” said Palm, who noted that the state doesn't charge volunteers at rape crisis centers or domestic violence shelters for their background checks.
“I think we might need to go back to the drawing board on a couple points,” she said.
The cost of the background check might seem modest. But advocates suggest it’s the type of barrier that could keep people, especially in lower income families, from getting involved at their children’s schools or youth groups.
Lawmakers have suggested the change is meant to create uniform standards. Many community groups already have these types of protections in place, Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-Northumberland County, said in a written statement.
The American Youth Soccer Organization, for example, updated its child protection policy a couple of years ago to include background checks for all volunteers, said Jake Mangels, a regional commissioner for the group in Selinsgrove.
If the change means those checks cost more, the soccer league will absorb the cost, he said.
Palm said some organizations may see rate increases if they've used private firms for background checks, instead of using the government systems now required. While they may get more expensive, she added, the change should mean the checks are more accurate.
But advocates worry about groups that can't absorb the cost.
Churches and youth organizations with bigger bank accounts will be able to cover credit checks for volunteers, said the Rev. Amy Reumann, director of the Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania. Smaller churches and youth groups may need to ask potential volunteers to pony up.
“That’s going to be a struggle,” she said.
Reumann said ministers and youth group leaders already get checked. But many churches likely will need to screen people who’ve never needed them before.
Still, the magnitude of the Sandusky case put the issue on church leaders' radar long before the law was revised, said the Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive director of Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
"The Sandusky scandal really shook the foundations" and got people thinking about child protection, she said.
The revised law also requires groups to keep records that verify their volunteers have been duly screened. Reumann said that, too, could be onerous for smaller churches and groups that rely on volunteer organizers instead of paid staff.
Palm said the situation is “ripe for confusion."
Under the new law, school employees who've not had background checks in the last three years must be screened again before the end of 2015.
Volunteers and others who've never been required to be checked must be screened before July 1, 2016.
State police performed 1.3 million background checks last year, said spokeswoman Maria Finn. The Department of Human Services did 600,000, Gillis said. Neither agency has estimated how many more checks they'll do under the new law.