The Pennsylvania Legislature has passed – and Gov. Tom Wolf has signed – House Bill 1276 to amend the state’s Child Protective Services Law. The amended law contains a number of clarifying revisions to the mandated reporting and background check requirements implemented in the last year, including a provision which would remove background check requirements for certain employees in the higher education context.
The amended law is effective immediately and will make employees of institutions of higher education exempt from background check requirements if their "direct contact with children, in the course of employment, is limited to either (a) prospective students visiting a campus operated by the institution of higher education; or (b) matriculated students who are enrolled with the institution." "Matriculated student" is defined as "a student who is enrolled in an institution of higher education and pursuing a program of study that results in a postsecondary credential, such as a certificate, diploma or degree." Students enrolled in a secondary school cannot be considered "matriculated students" of an institution of higher education, but there is otherwise no lower age limit to the definition – in other words, direct contact with a 15-year-old first-year college student would not alone make an employee subject to background check requirements.
The plain language of the proposed exemption applies solely to employees; absent further guidance to the contrary from the government, it does not appear that volunteers associated with institutions of higher education will be eligible for this exemption from background check requirements.
The new law also contains other changes intended to reduce the burden of the background check requirements. The new law also narrows the category of volunteers who will be required to undergo background checks. Under the language of the law, "direct volunteer contact" is now defined as "the care, supervision, guidance or control of children and routine interaction with children" (emphasis added). "Routine interaction" is now defined as "regular and repeated contact that is integral to a person’s employment or volunteer responsibilities." Volunteers currently must undergo background checks if they are applying for a position in which they are responsible for a child’s welfare or have "direct contact" with children.
The background check requirements will now go into effect August 25, 2015 for new volunteer applicants. Current volunteers will need to comport with the background check requirements by July 1, 2016.
The law also contains a waiver for certain checks required of volunteers; they will now be entitled to a free state criminal history check and child abuse clearance rather than being required to pay $10 for each check. Volunteers may now also transfer their certifications to another volunteer organization to fulfill the background check requirements. However, volunteers may not use the results of the volunteer background check for employment purposes.
In addition, the law addresses situations in which individuals under age 18 may need background checks. Employees aged 14-17 who must receive clearances will be exempt from the fingerprinting requirement if they have resided in the state for the last 10 years and would not otherwise be disqualified under the statute. Student volunteers will not need background checks if they are volunteering for an event taking place on school grounds, if 1) the program is sponsored by the school in which they are enrolled, 2) they are not responsible for the welfare of other children, and 3) the event is not for children who are in the care of a child-care service.
These and other provisions of the law will have an immediate impact on compliance obligations for institutions of higher education.