Florida Senator Worried That Background Checks for After School Programs Represent "Constant Government Interference"

By Michael Klazema on 9/4/2015
A State Senator in Florida wants to change the way background checks are conducted on volunteers of after-school programs operating in the state. The conversation about background checks for these programs, which include nationwide organizations like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Boys and Girls Clubs. In fact, just this spring, the Florida state legislature passed a new bill that required background checks and other regulation for these groups be overseen by the Department of Children and Families.

Chris Smith, a senator from the Fort Lauderdale area, doesn't oppose to the volunteer background checks themselves. Rather, he believes that having the Department of Children and Families regulate after-school programs runs the risk of introducing "constant government interference" into these programs. In a statement about his new bill, Smith said that he wants after-school clubs to be able to "continue to do their great work," and expressed his worries that "dealing with the DCF every other day" would distract from the purpose of these organizations: working to make a positive impact on kids' lives.

Smith's solution? Keep the background checks, but have the Department of Education oversee the after-school programs instead of the Department of Children and Families. The major issue, he says, is that current legislation essentially labels Boys and Girls Clubs, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts programs, and other similar programs as child-care programs. In other words, it puts them in the same category as daycare programs. Smith's argument is that these types of after-school programs are more about educational enrichment than they are about child-care, and that they should therefore be regulated and overseen by the Department of Education.

Currently, the Department of Children and Families is developing an oversight plan to make sure that all "child-care programs", including after-school programs, are regulated in the same way. These regulations include "Level 2" background checks, which are "fingerprint-based, national criminal-history searches."

Smith's current legislative proposal, it seems, wouldn't tamper much with the background check policies in place for volunteers of after-school programs. A past bill proposed by Smith, though, would have exempt after-school programs from the regulations of the current law. Previously, Florida state law exempted Boys and Girls Clubs and several other national after-school programs from DCF regulations, specifically, the licensing requirements that programs serving younger children are required to obtain. After-school programs for older kids are still exempt from those stricter licensing laws, but Smith, who is an alumnus of Boys and Girls Clubs, is worried that this new law could give the DCF too much leeway to interfere with those programs.

It's easy to see what Smith is getting at. The programs he is trying to protect are often geared toward older kids, and clarifying them as after-school programs instead of child-care programs would help them to continue offering the same enrichment opportunities they always have.

His opponents, though, who say that fragmenting the regulation of different types of youth-serving programs will only create holes into the policy, also have a point. The appeal of having the DCF monitor everything is that they would be able to create a cohesive model for vetting volunteers at youth-serving programs. Having the DCF and the Department of Education split those programs between them would also require each department to create their own screening models, which might create some inconsistency in the system.

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