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Keeping Our Kids Safe From Predators: A Challenge With a Bipartisan Solution | Commentary

Families all over America rely on after-school programs, summer camps and other youth-serving institutions to get their children involved in activities that enrich their lives and help them grow up to be healthy, productive adults. Sadly, these programs can also be a vulnerable target for child predators who hope to gain access to their next victims under the guise of seeking employment or volunteer opportunities. To keep our kids safe from predators, child-serving organizations must be equipped with access to the most robust criminal background checks available — the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

Currently, many child-serving organizations have the ability to request state background checks on prospective employees and volunteers who will work with children. However, a state background check alone is no match for the FBI’s fingerprint-based system — the only one capable of performing a nationwide search and preventing child predators from avoiding detection by moving from state to state. There’s a reason it’s the gold standard.

Take, for example, a summer camp that services medically-fragile children in Florida or Ohio. With proper consent and personal information from an applicant, camp administrators can generally obtain both a state and national FBI background check on a prospective volunteer with ease. However, administrators at a similar camp in Michigan or New York are limited to a state background check and have no access to an FBI search. This is problematic for an obvious reason: While an applicant may have a clean record in the state of Michigan, camp administrators have no way to verify that the applicant has not been charged or convicted of a crime against a child in any other state.

Sadly, this is a constant concern for child-serving organizations in as many as 34 states that are still barred from accessing the FBI background check system and are limited to either a state search or no search at all. And even in states such as Arkansas or Iowa where FBI searches are obtainable, less than half of states allow a wide range of youth-serving organizations to request them. And to boot, these searches are often prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

The results of a multi-year pilot program conducted by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children provide striking evidence of the need for youth-serving organizations to have access to FBI fingerprint checks when screening volunteers and staff who will work with children. From 2006 to 2011, the NCMEC provided nearly 69,000 background checks to a variety of child-serving organizations — 6 percent of all applicants, or close to 4,100 applicants — were found to have criminal records that made them likely unfit to work with youth. And of those individuals who were red-flagged, a whopping 42 percent had been convicted in a state other than the location of the organization where they applied for employment. The list of criminal offenses included convictions for sexual conduct with a child, child endangerment and even manslaughter — meaning that only a nation-wide check would have uncovered these records.

Since 2008, we have worked with a broad coalition of youth-serving organizations to advance the Child Protection Improvements Act, a meaningful and comprehensive solution to this problem. Our bill would make access to national FBI fingerprint checks easily obtainable, cost-effective, and streamlined for all youth-serving organizations, while preserving existing state background check systems that are working. From the Afterschool Alliance to the American Camp Association, to Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the Girl Scouts of the USA, and MENTOR: the National Mentoring Partnership and the YMCA, the nation’s leading youth-serving organizations unequivocally support the CPIA.

Child safety is a bipartisan issue and the CPIA is a bipartisan solution. During the lame-duck session, we have an opportunity to answer the call of thousands of youth-serving organizations and millions of families across the nation and make sure that not another year goes by with kids unnecessarily at risk. We need a vote on this bill to help keep our children safe in the care and supervision of their camp counselors, mentors and sports coaches.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff is a Democrat from California; Rep. Mike Rogers is a Republican from Michigan.

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