In the tension-filled chambers of a Legislative Session’s final days words matter and poorly chosen ones can stress long-standing relationships. Supporters of the Boys and Girls Club of Florida on Thursday pushed back on remarks Sen. Eleanor Sobel made after Wednesday’s meeting of the Children Families and Elder Affairs Committee.
The committee had unanimously approved SB 250 that mandates level 2 background checks, a nationwide criminal search of fingerprints, for groups working with children. Afterward Sobel remarked there were numerous newspapers articles about the clubs employing sexual predators. The quote was used a story under the headline “Senate panel backs exemption for Boys and Girls Clubs.”
Membership organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA that provide after-school programs for children 6 and older are not child-care facilities as defined by state law since at least 1987.
“We are not licensed to dispense gasoline either because we are not a gas station,” lobbyist Jack Cory said. “We are not a child-care provider, it’s that simple.”
The clubs support SB 250 because it clarifies background-screening requirements for after-school programs and standardizes the requirements. Different state agencies require different screening procedures forcing nonprofits to pay for two or three screenings for an employee.
However, it was the comment about predators by Sobel that set off advocates for the Boys and Girls Clubs.
“It’s frustrating trying to undo these false perceptions, particularly since Boys and Girls Clubs have been trying to add background screening requirements,” said former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who lobbies for the clubs. “It’s the minimum you should be doing.”
Sobel said she was reacting to newspaper reports from across the nation, something Cory said lacked context.
A Lexis-Nexis search of major newspapers for Boys and Girls Clubs and sexual predators found no reports. A Google search turned up two cases, one in Dallas and another in Kissimmee, about an art teacher who worked at a summer camp.
For purposes of comparison, a search of schoolteachers and sexual predators turned up more than 1,000 reports on Lexis-Nexis and a Google search returned numerous stories of Florida public school teachers arrested and convicted on charges of having sex with children.
“I love the Boys and Girls Club, it’s a great group. They benefit lives and I think they do great things but times change,” Sobel said Thursday when told that the clubs supporters felt that they were thrown under the bus by her predator comment.
Sobel and others think the club should be considered a child-care facility because under federal law it qualifies for child-care grants. State law, though, says the club is an after-school program, not subject to child-care facility regulations.
“Then we need to take a look at the state law,” said Sobel.
OK, say Boys and Girls Club supporters, but SB 250 doesn’t address differing regulations for child-care facility and after-school programs. It implements level 2 background screening for people who work around children. That’s something, they pointed out, the Club has been doing voluntarily. So, they wonder, why were they thrown under the bus?