STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS -- (Senate - March 13, 2008)
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Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, I rise today with my colleagues Senator Hatch and Senator Specter to introduce the Child Protection Improvements Act of 2008. This bill will expand and make permanent the national child safety pilot program that we passed as part of the PROTECT Act back in 2003. This bill is, in my view, an absolutely essential step towards developing a comprehensive approach to protect our Nation's children.
Human service organizations rely on volunteers and employees to provide services and care to children. These individuals coach soccer games, mentor young people, run youth camps, and much more. Approximately 61 million adults currently volunteer--with 27 percent dedicating their volunteer service to education and youth programs. By volunteering, they necessarily gain very close, often unsupervised access to our children. Of course, the vast majority of these people have the best interest of our children at heart--and we need as many volunteers as we can get. But, at the same time, we have to understand that bad people will take any step they can to gain access to children and many attempt to do this by volunteering.
Congress has previously attempted to ensure that States make FBI criminal history record checks available to organizations seeking to screen employees and volunteers who work with children, through the National Child Protection Act of 1993 and the Volunteers for Children Act. However, according to a report from the Attorney General, these laws ``did not have the intended impact of broadening the availability of checks.'' A 2007 survey conducted by MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership found that only 18 States allowed youth mentoring organizations to access nationwide Federal Bureau of Investigation background searches. And, even when states do provide access to background checks, it can be expensive and time consuming.
With the PROTECT Act pilot we decided to give some groups a direct line towards obtaining a national background check from the FBI and obtaining a fitness determination by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to see whether the applicant could present a potential threat to children. Thanks to the hard work and commitment of NCMEC, the FBI, MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership, and others this pilot program has proven incredibly effective. During the course of the pilot, we conducted roughly 37,000 background checks. Of these checks, 6.1 percent of prospective volunteers were found to have a criminal record of concern--including very serious offenses like sexual abuse of minors, assaults, murder, and serious drug offenses. In all, this represents over 2,200 dangerous people we prevented from working as volunteers with children. In addition, over 40 percent of the individuals with criminal records had committed an offense in a state other than where they were applying to volunteer, meaning that a state-only search would not have found relevant criminal records. In my view, this speaks to the urgent need of expanding this pilot to more groups and towards making the program permanent.
Despite these successes, the pilot was limited in several respects. The pilot was limited in scope with only a few youth-serving entities able to participate, and irregularities with respect to the annual appropriations process made it extremely difficult to operate the program to its fullest extent. With the legislation, we are introducing today, we build upon the lessons learned by taking the following steps: make the program permanent, which will help ensure that long-term investments are made to make the program effective and inexpensive; establish an Applicant Processing Center, APC, to assist youth serving organizations with the administrative tasks related to accessing the system, such as obtaining a fingerprint and handling billing with the FBI; and permanently establish and upgrade the fitness determination process at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In addition, we authorize the collection of a small surcharge to pay the FBI fee and offset the expenses incurred by National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Applicant Processing Center. With literally millions of volunteers working with our Nation's youth every year, it is imperative to provide a mechanism to allow more youth-serving organizations access and ensure a steady stream of resources to allow the program to grow toward the goal of protecting more children. This bill will do that.
Before closing, I want to touch on fee for service component which is added to this bill. Of course, the goal has always been that the checks have to be fast, inexpensive, and accurate for these checks to be suitable for non-profit organizations. By adding a small surcharge to the fee the FBI charges, we maintain that goal while expanding access. The bottom line is this--youth-serving organizations have told us that the ability to consistently obtain background checks and fitness determinations is critical and they will pay a little more to have access. Because Federal resources are simply not sufficient to provide wide access, and because the ebb and flow of the appropriations process creates instability with respect to how many checks can be completed, we felt that a small surcharge was the right approach.
Even with the surcharge, we still keep the cost very low. The bill calls for a fee no greater than $25 or the actual costs of preparing the application, running the background check by the FBI, and making the fitness determination by NCMEC for nonprofits. The applicant processing center created in this bill will collect this fee and make sure that all the costs are offset. And the goal is that this fee will offset all of the costs so that we can grow a system that is available to a wide range of entities that work with children. As of today, the American Camp Association, the Afterschool Alliance, the America's Promise Alliance, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Communities In Schools, Inc., First Focus, MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership, and YMCA of the USA all agree with this approach.
In addition, the bill authorizes $5 million in 2009 for startup costs and to develop new processes and technologies to automate and streamline the functions to keep costs down. And, while it's not a part of this legislation, I hope that we can get some of our great technology companies to help us with this effort by possibly donating some of their time, expertise, and ingenuity towards helping us automate the process--especially with the fitness determination process at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children which is a time consuming, labor-intensive process involving the manual review of criminal rap sheets. We formed a similar public-private partnership when we established the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and I hope we will be able to replicate that success here. Once we get this bill passed, I will be reaching out to some of our best technology companies to see if they can help us ensure that these checks remain inexpensive and available for as many youth-serving groups as possible.
I would once again like to thank my colleagues Senator Hatch's and Senator Specter's work on crafting this bill. We proved that we can help protect children at a low cost with the pilot program, and I believe that this bill will help expand access to a greater number of groups so that we can grow that number of protected children exponentially. To me, this is exactly the kind of service that the government owes to its people, and I look forward to its prompt passage before the expiration of the pilot program on July 30th, later this summer.
Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the Record.
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