Predator screening faulted

August 15, 2005

TIPS FOR PARENTS

Know the people with whom your child spends time; check references for caregivers.

Get involved in your children's activities; watch how adults interact with your children; and talk to the organization's sponsors about any concerns you have.

Take notice when someone shows your children a great deal of attention or gives them gifts; talk to your children about the person.

Remember that in the majority of cases children are molested by someone you know,

Listen when your children say they don't want to be with someone.

Teach your child to feel comfortable talking to you and be attuned to any behavior changes.

Source: California's ATtorney General

Child molesters rarely take the form of an anonymous kidnapper like Joseph Edward Duncan III, a convicted sex offender suspected of snatching a Beaumont boy from an alley and killing him, authorities say.

Instead, sex offenders are more likely to be someone who knows the child, and youth organizations are struggling to find efficient, inexpensive ways to weed out those predators in their midst. But experts caution that the organizations use a flawed patchwork of methods.

Some groups rely on federal criminal-background checks, while others run volunteers' and employees' fingerprints against state records. Still others use personal references or nothing at all. In the end, none of the systems is equipped to keep predators at bay the way parents themselves can, experts say.

"There is a brokenness in the system. The state sex registries are not a perfect science," said Trish McGonnell, a founding member and managing director of the National Center for Safety Initiatives, a group that helps parents and youth organizations learn how to set up policies for background screening.

"The parental community needs to wake up," she said. "We have this tendency to blindly trust."

McGonnell said her organization, which works with the National Council of Youth Sports, finds many adults are unsure of how best to protect children in extracurricular activities. Many youth groups her organization talks to say, "Nobody has really told us what to do," she said.

Background checks have become easy, routine and inexpensive in the past three years thanks to technological advances, but they're not foolproof, said James Lee of ChoicePoint, a Georgia company that does background checks for businesses and nonprofits.

Sometimes convictions get missed or, in some states, take up to six months to show up on state records, he said. Additionally, no single criminal-conviction database exists for the country, he said.

Offenders on the Move

ChoicePoint lets members check its compilation of sex-offender registries for 38 states that make that information available online. The other states have to be checked through a criminal-court records search, he said.

"Just checking your own state doesn't do much. It's common for (sex offenders) to move around," Lee said.

Duncan, the man police say killed Anthony Martinez of Beaumont seven years ago, also is suspected of molesting and, in some cases, killing children in Idaho, Washington and Minnesota. He was convicted of sexually assaulting a Washington teen-ager in 1980 and was registered as a sex offender in North Dakota in 2000.

The California Inland Empire Council of Boy Scouts uses ChoicePoint now to screen volunteers. The group used to rely only on the volunteer's application and reference checks.

The San Gorgonio Girl Scout Council, which is made up of Girl Scout troops in the Inland area, used to take paper fingerprints and run them through state criminal records, but that's become too expensive, said Kathy Knox, a spokeswoman for the council.

The state Department of Justice no longer accepts paper copies of fingerprints, which were processed for free for nonprofits. As of July 1, the department requires digital, computerized fingerprints with the Live Scan system. Live Scan costs about $100 per person for the prints and a state and national criminal records check, a hardship for many nonprofits.

Now, computer databases actually make it possible for the group to do a more thorough search that looks at records from California and other states, Knox said. The group, in addition to using reference checks, has a private company screen people for $2 per person.

"It's sad that you have to do all this but we want to have the safety," Knox said.

Criminals Found

Increasingly, youth organizations such as the Girl Scouts have abandoned fingerprinting of volunteers and employees in favor of background checks by outside companies that use names and driver licenses or Social Security numbers.

"It's the best for what we can afford," said Jolene Mears, director of human resources for the YMCAs in Riverside, Redlands and Ontario.

Last month, the local agencies began background checks on new hires and retroactive criminal searches on their 1,000 employees and 700 volunteers.

So far, they have found seven or eight employees and volunteers with convictions for such crimes as theft, driving under the influence and warrants, but no sex-related offenses. All but one of them lied about having a criminal record, Mears said.

Little League, since 2003, has required that volunteers be screened annually for sex-related offenses. Under the group's Child Protection Program, local leagues are responsible for doing the checking, through the Megan's Law sex-offender registries, law enforcement or a private company. Local leagues can pay for the checks, use money from sponsors or ask the volunteers to pay for it themselves.

Such checks weren't being done in 1990 when Norman Steven Watson joined the East Baseline Little League in Highland. He pleaded guilty in 1998 to 39 counts of lewd acts with five children, including two teenage players, and is serving an 84-year prison sentence.

The two players filed a lawsuit against the league, alleging that it failed to protect them by not conducting a background check on Watson, a registered sex offender. An undisclosed settlement was reached in March 2003.

To get a local Little League charter today, two officials from the league must sign documents agreeing to do the checks. At the end of the season, they sign again verifying that the checks were done.

Anyone with convictions for crimes against a minor is banned from the league, said Jim Gerstenslager, Little League's western region director in San Bernardino. Each league's board of directors determines whether any other convictions result in a ban.

"On a consistent basis there's people who come up on the checks that we ban from being involved," he said. "It's common that we have to do that, more than we want. It's unbelievable."

Parents' Diligence

Several parents attending the Little League West Region Tournament in San Bernardino this week said they had faith in their local organizations to screen volunteers, although none interviewed knew specifics about their group's procedures.

"I just hope they're doing their job," said Kerrie Kern, 37, whose 12-year-old son plays in the Billings Heights, Mont., National League.

Lisa Gopperton, 35, of San Bernardino, said she takes responsibility for her children's safety, never letting her 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter out of her sight when they're attending practices or games. "A coach is a coach, not mom or dad," she said.

Cherie Blades, 41, whose husband is a Tracy National Little League coach, said it's a difficult balancing act. Youth sports organizations are struggling to find volunteers, she said. And many coaches don't like having parents on the sidelines because it can be distracting for the children.

But if her husband wasn't a coach on her 12-year-old son's team, "I'd stay around," she said.

Santa Ana attorney Thomas Cifarelli said parents like to think well-recognized, prominent organizations are immune to sexual-molestation problems but warned that it's unwise to think, "It can't happen to me."

"Adults have to be diligent in making sure the volunteers are there for the right reason," he said, noting to watch out for volunteers with no familial ties to an organization. "What works, in a word, is diligence."

Cifarelli sued the Little League in the Norman Watson case on behalf of the former players.

A similar case rocked Rubidoux in 2003, when suspicious parents discovered a coach's photograph under a different name in the California sex-offender database.

Adolph Ganion III was sentenced a year ago to 25 years to life for multiple counts of lewd and lascivious behavior stemming from his three years as a coach with the Jurupa National Little League. Parents there had asked to have Ganion, known as Al Humphrey, fingerprinted but were told it was too expensive.

Staff writers Douglas Quan, Michael Fisher and Sandra Stokley contributed to this report.

 

Source: Inland Southern California;

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