Friday, October 3, 2003
New CORI law requires criminal checks on volunteers
The new CORI requirements are spawning frustration for Massachusetts
public and private schools, and local volunteer organizations such
as Girl Scouts. It has led long-time volunteers, such as Kathy Hassey,
Chair of the Carlisle Youth Commission, to question whether they want
to continue volunteering. Hassey was distressed when she first learned
how the CORI law would affect the Carlisle Middle School Friday Night
Live (FNL). "I was incensed. I was not notified, and there's no procedure. Friday Night Live will fold if we have to do this," she
CORI stands for Criminal Offender Record Information. A CORI check is a search of an individual's possible criminal record. Although the CORI law has been on the books for a number of years, new amendments which became effective in May 2003, require schools, camps, transportation companies, or any "organization primarily engaged in providing activities or programs to children 18 years of age or less that accepts volunteers" to obtain criminal offender record information on each employee and volunteer.
Not just for children
The new CORI law applies to all vulnerable populations. According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs, the state law "requires entities to obtain CORI checks on individuals before they can volunteer, be employed, or be referred for employment in any entity providing services to elderly person in their homes or community setting."
"Do I have to do them? I guess I do," Director of Carlisle Counsel on Aging Liz Jewell answered her own question. "I thought I would go through the Town Administrator or something," she added.
Jewell said she has not received directives from the Executive Office of Elder Affairs since the law has been updated, and is not sure what her responsibilities are. "We don't get audited by the Elder Affairs," she explained. She said in the past they have informally checked with the Carlisle Police Department to screen potential drivers. But the CORI requirement would extend to Meals on Wheels and to any volunteer, including teenagers, who may work with Carlisle elders.
The schools are familiar with CORI, having conducted checks on teachers and other personnel in the past. What is new is that they must now check every volunteer. According to a memo from David Driscoll, Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, all schools must obtain CORIs on individuals who may have "direct and unmonitored contact with children."
"We're inundated," said Peg Lynch, Assistant to the Superintendent at the Carlisle School, when asked how the new CORI Act has affected the school. "People want to volunteer," continued Lynch, "but when school started many parents had not been cleared with a CORI report."
Concord-Carlisle High School Principal Art Dulong said the school is on track with CORI requests. "We have many different volunteers." But when told about the CORI law's requirement for apprenticeship programs ("...if the school is sponsoring the placement of a student in a one-on-one setting with an adult, such as in an apprenticeship program, it may be appropriate for the school to conduct a CORI check...."), he said he will need to review the high school spring internships.
The Carlisle Recreation Department felt the effects of the new law this summer. "We had to do everybody, including teenagers," said Cindy Nock, saying they sent in requests for every summer camp employee. Camp employees over eighteen were previously required to be checked, but the new law states juveniles must be checked as well. Though Nock was worried that the start of camp might be delayed, she was surprised that the CORI reports came back within a month. As the fall/winter recreation courses start, Nock has had to submit more CORI requests for the course instructors.
Friday Night Live feels major impact
Friday Night Live, the popular social gathering for middle school students, has over five hundred potential volunteers. Performing CORIs on all the parents is a paperwork nightmare, according to Hassey. "I do a lot in town," Hassey explained, "and this is my seventh year with Friday Night Live. The biggest thing we worry about is safety." Hassey wondered if the CORI law would apply to FNL, since the volunteers are never alone with the students. But Chris Mehnel, an intern reached at the CHSB office, said the official policy of the Board was all individuals working with children should be cleared with a CORI report.
"I called Madonna McKenzie [Carlisle Town Administrator] for advice," she said. According to Hassey, McKenzie told her she was required to CORI all five hundred and forty volunteer parents. "I laughed," recalled Hassey. "I thought she was kidding. Then she told me to call Cindy Nock, and Cindy will tell me how to do it. I couldn't believe it."
Everyone reviewing and handling the CORI reports has to apply for certification from the CHSB, and then sign an Individual Agreement of Non-Disclosure (AOND). "First, I would have to get authorized," Hassey explained. A criminal background check will be done on the individuals requesting certification. Not until this procedure is complete can an organization request CORIs on employees and volunteers. "Yes, I want to be chair of the Carlisle Youth Commission," Hassey said, "but I don't feel I have the power to administer CORIs." McKenzie could not be reached for comment.
"I called Tony Allison to find out what the procedure is," explained Hassey. "I will not do this, I work full time, I have four teenagers, and I can't do this," she continued. "Tony was great, and I put it in the hands of the Selectmen." Responding later in the week by e-mail, Allison replied, "I brought it up at a BOS [Board of Selectmen] meeting two weeks ago to let the other Selectmen know what was going on. I'm going to do a little research on this law when I get some time. Specifically, I want to see if there is some way to centralize the filing of the paperwork that comes back from CORI, perhaps in Town Hall or the police department." This would allow a volunteer like Kathy to call the central filing person, continued Allison, and confirm a previous CORI report on an employee or volunteer, removing the need to file another CORI request for that individual. "And, the volunteer heads of groups wouldn't have to file the paperwork in their basement. I haven't had a chance to do this research but hope to do some next week. I think the sense of the BOS is that if we can centralize the filing, we will. If not, we will have to discuss other options to try and help our volunteers cope with this requirement."
Hassey has looked into the possibility of sharing the CORI reports with the Carlisle School. "Steve Goodwin was great," she added, saying the Co-Principal promised to look into how they could help FNL. However, an examination of the CORI law finds this statement: "CORI must not be disseminated to any other person or agency," so it is unclear if the school is allowed to provide other organizations with help in accessing or reviewing CORI reports.
According to the law, each organization with individuals working or volunteering with the listed vulnerable populations must obtain separate CORI reports. Carlisle is teeming with volunteers who serve in multiple positions. Michelle Sobin is an example: she is vice president of the Carlisle School Association, volunteers in the Carlisle School, leads two Girl Scout troops, and works with a church group. Each activity requires a separate CORI report. In addition, Sobin must request CORI reports for the volunteers who assist her with her Scout troop. "We just started dealing with CORIs," Sobin explained. "We're short-handed, and we're buried just with getting the troop off the ground." If Sobin receives a CORI report which shows a person has a criminal record of some kind, she must review it to determine whether the person can volunteer.
Storing records in your basement
According to the CORI record-keeping requirements, each organization must store the CORI reports in a locked file cabinet for up to three years, "for the purposes of defending against any employment discrimination action."
"I am not storing five hundred CORIs," Hassey stated. She pointed out the position of Chair for the Youth Commission potentially changes every two years, requiring the reports to either be physically moved, if allowed by law, or redone each time a new chair is appointed. Hassey said she, as a private citizen, felt uncomfortable accessing other residents' CORI reports.
Auditing CORI compliance
It is unclear who is overseeing the organizations doing the CORI checks. According to Mehnel at the CHSB, the Massachusetts Department of Education is responsible for auditing the public schools to insure that the CORI procedures are followed. He then stated that the Massachusetts Board of Health is responsible for auditing other organizations. But Howard Wensley, reached at the Massachusetts Board of Health office, explained that it is the local health boards, such as the Carlisle Board of Health, that will review CORI compliance when they license a camp to function in their towns. Carlisle Board of Health agent Linda Fantasia agreed, but explained that the Carlisle Recreation summer program is just that, a summer program and not a camp. "It has to be a camp licensed by the Board of Health, not a summer program," Linda explained. Last year they licensed the Middlesex Soccer League, which ran a one-week camp at the Spalding Field. "First of all, it's a very good thing," she said, referring to the CORI checks, "but the state is still ironing it out. Personally, I've had to fill out one form for the Carlisle School, and one for the high school."
There are many Carlisle organizations with no clearly defined parent group to audit CORI compliance and report back to a state agency. The CHSB has not specified how supervision of the CORI procedures is handled. What is clear is that the new law is well-meaning. It will be some time before the results of the law are sorted out. Meanwhile, the CHSB will continue to try to respond to CORI requests. "We have two employees and three interns processing thousands of requests," said Mehnel, whose office handles requests for the whole of Massachusetts, "We're overwhelmed."
For more information and a copy of the law see the state website, www.doe.mass.edu/lawsregs/advisory/CORI.html.
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