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6/21/2017 Assembly gives final approval to background checks for those working or volunteering with children at churches
STATE HOUSE – With full passage in the House today, the General Assembly gave its approval to legislation sponsored by Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne and Rep. Jason Knight to protect Rhode Island youth by requiring all adults who seek employment or volunteer opportunities with routine contact with children in churches or religious organizations to submit to a national criminal background check if asked.

The legislation (2017-S 0661A, 2017-H 6059A), which will be forwarded to the governor, is meant to help churches and other religious institutions protect children from people who have a history of abuse or other dangerous crimes. It was introduced as a result of the May 2015 arrest of the director of religious education at Temple Habonim in Barrington in a statewide child pornography sweep.

“Churches and religious organizations rely heavily on volunteers, the vast majority of whom are there for selfless reasons and share the institutions’ dedication to moral behavior. Unfortunately, by virtue of welcoming volunteers, churches and religious institutions make good targets for someone who might want access to children as potential victims. They need all available tools to screen volunteers and employees to ensure that they are providing children a safe experience,” said Senator Coyne (D-Dist. 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence), who is a retired State Police lieutenant.

Under the legislation, anyone 18 or older seeking to work or volunteer for any religious organization in a position in which they would have routine contact with children would be required, at the request of the religious organization or house of worship, to undergo a Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) national criminal background check for the purpose of determining whether he or she has been convicted of any crime. The cost of the background check would be the applicant’s responsibility. Under the bill, it would be up to each church or religious organization to decide whether to ask for a BCI check.

“This legislation enables churches and religious organizations to make national background checks a requirement, at no cost to the organization, but doesn’t require them to do so. It also provides them legal protection if they choose not to accept an individual based on a background check. It’s meant to make things easier for people who run churches and religious organizations, many of whom may be volunteers themselves, and to help them protect children who are a part of their group,” said Representative Knight (D-Dist. 67, Barrington, Warren).

The legislation would not automatically disclose the nature of any crime in an applicant’s history, instead disclosing only that some disqualifying information has been found. However, the applicant would have the option of asking that the specifics be forwarded to the church or organization, which would then have the discretion to determine whether the applicant is eligible to work or volunteer there.

The legislation also protects churches and religious organizations from liability for refusing to accept an employee or volunteer based on information received as part of the criminal background checks.

The sponsors said they understand that national background checks cannot provide a guarantee of safety from predators, since they do not protect against anyone who would be a first-time offender. Some institutions may also wish to allow people with criminal histories to work or volunteer in some capacities if they consider the nature of their particular history to be irrelevant to the position, or if they determine the person has been sufficiently rehabilitated in the time since the offense occurred. However, churches and religious organizations should at least have access to this existing resource if they want it to make informed decisions about applicants with dangerous histories, they said.

The bill is cosponsored in the Senate by Sen. William J. Conley Jr. (D-Dist. 18, East Providence, Pawtucket), Sen. Adam J. Satchell (D-Dist. 9, West Warwick), Sen. Elizabeth A. Crowley (D-Dist. 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket) and Sen. James A. Seveney (D-Dist. 11, Portsmouth, Bristol, Tiverton). House cosponsors include Rep. Robert E. Craven (D-Dist. 32, North Kingstown), Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (D-Dist. 33, Narragansett, South Kingstown), Rep. Cale P. Keable (D-Dist. 47, Burrillville, Glocester) and Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Dist. 21, Warwick).

For more information, contact:
Meredyth R. Whitty, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 222-1923