Thursday, June 11, 2015


by Alice Nelson
Lancaster County

Breaking news:  The governor announced that the fees for PA Clearances 
will be waived for volunteers. Lifting the financial burden on individuals will be helpful to organizations struggling to comply, but it does not fix the most egregious problems with law.  Please do not let the recovering of $20 (or $50) in your personal wallet 
persuade you to ignore the greater harm of Act 153.

After the Penn State Child Abuse Scandal horrified the nation, lawmakers rightly wanted to “do something” to protect children from predators like Sandusky.  Part of that “something” was Act 153 which expanded background check requirements and broadened the definition of mandatory reporters.   In an impressive display of bipartisanship, Act 153 passed the Senate unanimously and passed the House with a 175 to 19 majority. Either those 19 dissenters in the House were child-haters, or they recognized that their colleagues were shirking their duty by letting this sloppy piece of legislation slide though on the grease of good-intentions.

So, what’s wrong with Act 153?
I’ll say it again…it’s sloppy. 

                Precise, clear, written laws are essential to our democracy. Lawyers advise their clients based on what the law actually says, not on what he/she thinks the lawmakers meant. That is why boy scouts will be requiring background clearances from parents who simply accompany their own sons to den meetings. Is that what our lawmakers intended? I don’t think so, but it is what they wrote.  

Representative were urged to iron out the issues right before it passed. Representative Jordan Harris expressed concerns about the law. He worried that one requirement in the law could essentially rob an individual of his/her right to due process. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Dan Moul, did not deny that, as written, the bill could be used as Harris feared, but he trusted that judges and district attorneys would not follow the law in those cases. (I’d like to think that there was a collective gasp in the chamber at the thought of lawyers and judges being expected to NOT follow the law, but the House recorder didn’t transcribe any.) Respectfully, Rep. Harris reminded his colleague, “…our job is to legislate, and that is what we are sent here to do on this day, to make sure that we close loopholes so that these problems will not arise (House Journal Page 1568-1569).”  His good advice went unheeded. 

It casts too wide of a net.

The law requires volunteers who have direct contact with a child OR is responsible for the welfare of a child to submit clearances every three years. That covers just about everyone, which is why homeschool parents who meet together in a cooperative now need clearances to be in the presence of each other’s children.  
So, what? Why not cast a wide net if it insures that we stop the bad guys? Because wide nets are ineffective. Wasting time and resources on clearances for people whose positions pose no risk detracts from the scrutiny that should be given to those who have a position of control over non-related children.   

It’s not the government’s responsibility to protect our children.

It’s our responsibility to protect our children. The government often assumes upon itself responsibilities that belong to the family, and historically, citizens have handed that authority over. Act 153 forces us to ask: should we relinquish the responsibility of discernment regarding associations we freely make and allow the government to place stipulations on those who invest time and talents in our children’s lives? We, as parents, have the right to ask private organizations with which we are involved to implement common sense protective policies, and if they fail to provide a safe environment, we have the right and responsibility to remove our children from that environment. We should not expect or rely upon government to do that for us except in government run institutions like public schools or the foster care system. It is an over-reach of power and a wrong assumption of responsibility for the government to impose these requirements on homeschool co-ops, scouting organizations and other privately run youth programs.  

It puts children who are at risk in more danger.

                Parents who have a criminal history will shy away from youth activities where their embarrassing pasts may be revealed through mandatory background checks. What if their record disqualifies them according to Act 153? They would then not be able to attend events with their own child.  In Cub Scouts, that would mean that they could not attend family events with their son or even help him at den meetings. The likely scenario would be that those parents will simply forgo scouts and other opportunities for their child which require that their own mistakes* be brought to light.   Would it not be better to have these families involved so that the children are not isolated? So that the parents, if they are reforming, can be supported? So that the children of unrepentant parents can have access to adults who will notice signs of abuse and call for help?  (*Let me be clear that I am not referring to convictions of child abuse as mere mistakes. Any crime that involved a substantiated CPS report should result in termination of the abuser’s parental rights, however, other felonies may not.)               

It places a heavy burden on volunteers.

I’m not talking about the inconvenience of the background checks now. Instead the burden to which I refer is the expectation that volunteers interpret evidence, question parents and act on a hunch WITHOUT the benefit of consulting leadership first. Everyone who works or volunteers around children is a mandatory reporter now.  The law threatens to prosecute anyone who fails to report reasonable suspicions of abuse directly to Childline.  
Of course, we should report child abuse, but what is “reasonable suspicion”?   In the light of hindsight, missed signs will seem much more reasonably suspicious. Do we want to trust that prosecutors will be reasonable or do we want our laws to insure that they will be? As the law is written now, the bar for reasonable suspicion will be set low by volunteers wishing to protect themselves against power of hindsight and against an overzealous prosecutor.  

What can you do? 

Get involved in the conversation. 
I have a Facebook page dedicated to all things Act 153.  “Like” the page so you can stay updated and so you can share your own insights about how and why the law should be amended.

Write your legislators.

     Ask them to:

v      withdraw background clearance mandates on volunteers in private organizations like churches, homeschool co-ops and scouts. Most of those organizations already had reasonable kid-safe practices in place including efficient and cost-effective background checks through third-parties. 
v      write into law a precise definition of “reasonable suspicion” and remove the requirement for volunteers to call Childline before consulting leadership." 

v      make an exemption for situations when parents remain on-site with their children

Spread the word.  
Share this blog and the Facebook link with your co-ops and support groups.   

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