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California bill brings more confusion than progress, say abuse prevention advocates

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FRESNO, Calif. (BP) – California churches and other youth service providers are working to meet the requirements of a newly enacted state bill designed to strengthen prevention measures against child abuse. However, concerns exist over the logistics of its implementation as well as long-term effectiveness.

Assembly Bill 506, introduced a year ago and passed by a 78-0-1 vote in September, took effect Jan. 1. It outlines a three-pronged standard of care for every “youth service organization” in the state. Max Herr, ministry specialist for Human Resources & Church Compliance with the California Southern Baptist Convention, said the bill’s requirements aren’t really a problem, but its timing is.

“Typically, when bills are passed they might not go into effect until July 1,” he said. “But they can also go into effect sooner if it is felt that is necessary.”

That timetable became a challenge for many churches. Some in the CSBC already followed the steps outlined in the bill, including Live Scan fingerprints for background checks. However, in a convention of 1,800 churches covering approximately 80 language groups, congregations will be at varying levels of compliance.

When counting about 500 church missions and plants, that number rises to 2,375, said Terry Barone, CSBC Special Projects coordinator.

“The response has been predictably slow,” Herr said. “We tried to get the information out to our churches in a timely manner, but it requires the churches to come to our website or call me for the details.”

On Dec. 21 the CSBC published an explainer for churches on AB506. A key logistical issue with the bill was the requirement of fingerprinting via Live Scan as a type of background check. This meant every church must apply to become an “Applicant Agency” and obtain an ‘ORI’ number necessary for submitting fingerprints to the California Department of Justice (DOJ).

One church member will be established as a “custodian” of those records and receive the fingerprint check results from the DOJ through a secure email server (not a platform such as Gmail or Yahoo). This person is responsible for the storage and eventual deletion of those records and will submit his or her own Live Scan fingerprints when the church’s application for the ORI is approved.

It boils down to the fingerprinting methods, the paper stated. A “rolling fee” (inking prints and affixing to the form) can range from $20 to $25 per person. To run the search, there is a DOJ search fee of $32 per person, with a total cost of $62 to $67 per person. Online statements stemming from DOJ materials indicate that the … search is ‘free for volunteers’; the ‘free’ aspect relates to the DOJ search fee only, not the rolling fee.” A $79 fee will also be charged for the fingerprints of the “custodian.”

“For smaller churches that can become a significant financial burden,” said Herr. “It depends on the number of volunteers and staff. But if you have 20 or 30 volunteers who work with children, that cost can go well over $1,000.”

Those steps can add up to a significant cost for churches. A white paper provided by child abuse prevention advocates MinistrySafe noted that while private background check services can be as low as $10 per applicant, the search in the new bill will cost more while perhaps providing less.

In addition to cost, MinistrySafe outlined seven other areas of concern related to the bill that could potentially impede churches’ ability to adequately protect children. For instance, the Live Scan system only searches for “fingerprinted offenses.” The problem, MinistrySafe said, is that “not all California criminal records are searchable by fingerprint, and not all crimes in California require fingerprinting.”

Herr described the new logistics brought by the bill as “substantial” with a “significant cost attached with no help offered by the State of California.”

“Unfortunately, in our small churches which account for about half of our 2,400 churches, that task will fall on pastors,” he said. “Church members will have to step up in support of their pastors and children’s and youth ministries.”

MinistrySafe advised in its paper that AB506 doesn’t go far enough, and should expand its background check tools to include those that include convictions in other states. They believe attention also needs to be given to identifying grooming techniques among predators.

“Through AB506, the California legislature responded to an issue that hasn’t been solved by civil litigation and stiffer criminal penalties, rightly focusing on the need for training, background checks and policies,” it stated. “Assembly Bill 506 creates a new Standard of Care, but the new law generates confusion rather than clarity and, to some degree, lowers the bar rather than raises it.”