Friday, December 21, 2007

It is Time For Alberta to Set Up a Comprehensive Volunteer Screening System

The media reports about child pornography charges against a school employee and volunteer involved with already vulnerable children are disturbing. The school system and the agency involved were quick to respond and did so effectively.

The question remains about how do we screen out people with inappropriate pasts and how do we continue to monitor changes in behaviours on an on-going basis that is cost effective and respects personal privacy?

The voluntary sector in Alberta under the leadership of Volunteer Alberta has been focused on this challenge for a couple of years at least. They have been advocating compulsory and comprehensive volunteer screening and police checks as part of the solution.
Full Disclosure…I had the opportunity to work with the voluntary sector on the issues and to study the practices and procedures in place for volunteer screening around Alberta. Here is a link to our report and recommendations.

The risks are to vulnerable Albertans who are served by the voluntary sector, the volunteers themselves and the agencies and directors who may face liability and will could become uninsurable for certain third-party liability risks without a government intervention to help ensure the safety and security of vulnerable clientele. Without insurance coverage these organizations will not survive.

Our report recommendations are as current today as they were in the summer of 2006 when the report was presented to government. This is a critical and complex public policy issue that ought to be undertaken by governments. A confidential, centralized comprehensive and authoritative volunteer screening and checking system should be designed, developed and implemented in conjunction with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

There needs to be due diligence procedures in place and training done in the voluntary sector to ensure the operational integrity and effectiveness of any policy. There needs to be a balance between public protection and personal privacy. There must be an on-going and confidential feedback loop to the voluntary sector agencies as the facts about the behaviours of volunteers may change over time.

There has to been reluctance that morphed into inertia at the provincial government level on dealing with this issue. If the government of Alberta is serious about health wellness and prevention, including mental health of potential victims, setting up a system for police checks and volunteers screening is a cost effective step in the right direction. It will not be fool-proof but it will discover inappropriate “volunteers” and tend to discourage and deter them from “volunteering” in the first place.

There are 19,000 registered not-for-profit organizations in Alberta who do great work in all kinds of service areas in our society. The management, directors and agencies themselves are at serious risk without proper police checks and volunteer screening policies in place. We can see, as evidenced by the recent child pornography charges, the systems can work effectively but they are no iron-clad guarantee of protection. Life is not that simple.

This matter of volunteer screening is a public safety and security need that must be addressed. It is a societal values issue that requires we also ensure adequate protection for the generous and compassionate good citizens who volunteer their time and skills to serve the greater good in our communities. It is a practical problem that will not go away or solve itself over time. It needs government intervention and some political will activiated now!

Premier Stelmach, please move immediately on the recommendation in this report on police checks and volunteers screening that commissioned by the not-for-profit voluntary sector about two years ago. Matching grant programs are great and welcome but this issue is one that, if left unattended by government policy and action, can undermine the effectiveness and even the existence of many service providers in the voluntary social services sector.