Federal Background Checks Vital for Youth Programs

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Imagine you are a child having trouble feeling secure in your home environment. Or, maybe your parents are incarcerated. Or, perhaps, you are a child whose parents both work two jobs and can’t give you the attention you need. Imagine that you are lonely and scared.

Now, imagine you are in a mentoring program — excited to meet your mentor, to have a caring adult in your life to help you in school, spend time with you and give you guidance!

But, what if your mentor turns out to be none of these things? What if your mentor is actually a danger to you — a predator, a convicted felon?

The odds of that may increase on March 31, when a program called SafetyNET ends. SafetyNET is a pilot program created under the PROTECT Act of 2003 that allows mentoring programs to access nationwide FBI fingerprint-based background check information for volunteers. Since 2003, Congress has extended this necessary program each year, but only as a pilot project.

The results have been astonishing. With more than 100,000 background checks completed to date, 6 percent of the potential volunteers checked have had records of concern. This includes convictions for rape, murder and extreme animal abuse. Even scarier is the fact that 41 percent of these crimes were committed in a state different from the potential volunteer’s location. As transient as people are these days — especially if they are trying to run from a criminal record — state checks are simply not enough. 

However, two-thirds of America’s states allow only a statewide check. And, to complicate things further, the cost of completing checks can be prohibitive, not to mention the turn-around time of up to six weeks.

But, with SafetyNET, the cost to nonprofit mentoring organizations is lower, and the turn-around time is cut.  Mentoring programs simply send fingerprints of potential volunteers to MENTOR, The National Mentoring Partnership.  MENTOR sends the prints to the FBI. And, the FBI sends fingerprint records to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where fitness determinations are made as to whether the volunteer is “safe” to work with children. 

Why would we allow this successful program to end? We need a permanent, nationwide solution now. 

The solution is the Child Protection Improvements Act. Introduced in Congress last week by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), this bill would build upon the success of SafetyNET and make these essential background checks permanently and widely available to not just mentoring programs, but all youth serving organizations. In the coming weeks, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) are expected to introduce the bill in the House. 

This is a bill that all sectors can and should support. We cannot let an average of six out of every 100 of our children be mentored by someone with a criminal record of concern.

Tonya Wiley is vice president of external relations for MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, which has operated the SafetyNET pilot program in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children