Rec. dept. broadens background checks

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The Williston Recreation Department this summer will begin conducting national background checks on its employees, volunteer coaches and coaching assistants working with youth. In recent years, the department’s background checks covered only Vermont criminal records.

Earlier this year a Williston recreation basketball coach who had a clean Vermont record was found to have a criminal record in New York. Williston resident Kaseen S. Smith, 31, has pled not guilty to charges of aggravated domestic assault, aggravated sexual assault, domestic assault, and attempted disarming of a police officer. A police background check showed Smith was charged with domestic assault in Binghamton, N.Y. in 1998; a conviction for assault with intention to cause physical harm resulted, according to a police affidavit.

“This whole incident caused the recreation committee to take another look at background check policies,” said Kevin Finnegan, director of the Williston Recreation Department. “We’ll do this with anyone who works with children who works with our department.”

Prior to this summer’s staff, the department ordered background checks through the Vermont Criminal Information Center, which provides state background checks free of charge to organizations working with vulnerable populations. Finnegan said Recreation Committee member Tim O’Brien suggested the department use ChoicePoint’s Volunteer Select Plus, a service used by Williston Little League. ChoicePoint is a for-profit company providing identification and credential verification services.

The service provides an instant check of multiple criminal record sources, according to the company’s Web site: county criminal records; federal fugitive files; Department of Corrections prison, parole and release files; Office of Courts records; state criminal records; and sex offender registries from 33 states and the District of Columbia. The service also confirms identity through a social security number check.

“It’s important to keep the kids safe,” Finnegan said of the checks. “These kinds of (recreation) programs are the kind that can attract dangerous people.”

The Recreation Department will pay roughly $5 for each record check of which there are about 200 annually, Finnegan said. Even high school students working as day camp staff or as assistant coaches will be checked, Finnegan said, though he noted those checks may not be foolproof since juvenile records often are sealed. Record checks are done annually on returning employees and volunteers.

Finnegan himself is responsible for collecting signed waivers from volunteers and employees so that he may submit record check requests, he said. Any information gleaned through those checks is confidential, available only to him and, if necessary, members of the recreation committee. Applicants with records are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, Finnegan said.

“Certainly anything violent, anything involving children, they couldn’t work with the department,” Finnegan said. “There’s certainly some gray areas in there. People come back with fish and game violations, 20-year-old petty theft…we have to make that call.”

In addition to background checks, Finnegan said parents should be reassured by the fact that all employees go through a one-week training program that includes safety expectations; for example, children may not use a public restroom without it first being checked for safety by a staff member. Children also may not be left alone with a staff member where they cannot be observed by other staff.