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Smith Renews Debate On After-School Background Checks

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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – A legislative battle over state regulation of after-school programs will return during the 2016 legislative session.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, has filed a proposal (SB 156) to undo part of a law that passed this spring and went into effect July 1. His bill would make a change dealing with the oversight of programs such as Boys and Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts --- local programs that are part of national membership organizations.

Currently, the staff and volunteers of such groups are required to meet background-screening requirements through the state Department of Children and Families, but Smith's bill would shift that oversight to the Department of Education.

Smith praised the Boys and Girls Clubs, of which he's an alumnus, and said his bill is aimed at "helping them continue to do their great work without constant government interference, taking away time and effort from working with kids and dealing with DCF every other day."

The law approved this spring requires what are known as "Level 2" background screenings for the national groups and others that work with young children. Level 2 screenings are fingerprint-based, national criminal-history searches that are updated whenever there is a new offense and are available to participating agencies through a central clearinghouse.

Under the law, the Department of Children and Families is responsible for ensuring that the Level 2 screenings are conducted at child-care facilities and has been working to develop the details in a new department rule.

Smith, however, said after-school programs like the Boys and Girls Clubs belong at the Department of Education --- and not classified as child-care facilities regulated by the Department of Children and Families.

"We've been fighting with DCF for four or five years about this," he said. "They keep trying to turn it into a child-care program."

Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll said his department will continue with the rule-making process, which is supported by the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet. The cabinet, which includes the heads of all state agencies dealing with children, said last week it backs the tighter standards related to Level 2 background screenings.

"It's a compliance-driven issue," Carroll said. "Where it sits is not a big concern of mine."

Under state law, programs that serve children under age 6 must be licensed. Every child-care facility in Florida is required to have a license and renew it annually though the Department of Children and Families. But in 1987, certain religious and national groups were exempted from that requirement --- including the Boys and Girls Clubs and similar after-school programs with national affiliations.

The bill that passed this spring, however, made clear that groups such as the Boys and Girls Clubs are not exempt from the background-screening requirements.

Smith tried unsuccessfully to pass another bill that would have kept the exemption for the national groups. His efforts met with resistance from members of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, which twice refused to pass it.

The senator's newly filed bill to move the after-school programs to the Department of Education is also likely to run into opposition.

Janet Mabry, a lobbyist who represents private child-care providers, said the measure would "fragment" an oversight system that the Department of Children and Families is developing.

"The bill would move one type of child care --- after-school care --- for one type of provider over to the Department of Education," she said. "That fragments what is happening in child-care programs across the state. And therefore, there's no benefit to the children."

Smith, however, said the bill would help the Boys and Girls Clubs fulfill their mission.

"(The bill) clarifies that they're an after-school program," he said. "It allows background screenings for all Boys and Girls Clubs, and it clarifies that they're not child care, they're an after-school program."

The News Service of Florida's Margie Menzel contributed to this report.

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