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Boys and Girls Clubs advocates cry foul over sexual predator remark

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

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 to Florida law,” 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.

While a Lexis-Nexis search of major newspapers for Boys and Girls Clubs and sexual predators found no reports and a Google search turned up two cases, one in Dallas and another in Kissimmee, about an art teacher who worked at a summer camp, Sobel’s staff responded with links to five news stories they found on the Internet.

One involved a 40-year old Massachusetts case. Another was a 2007 New York Times article about a Polk County sting which nabbed three Walt Disney World workers and a B&G club volunteer. The most recent story was from last year and involved a Wellington man accused of having sex with a 16-year old volunteer.

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,” Sobel said.

But SB 250 doesn’t do that, according to its sponsor, Sen. Chris Smith. It addresses screening not licensing requirements.

“It does not change any Florida law regarding licensing. The only thing my bill does is to mandate level 2 screening for Boys and Girls Clubs employees” Smith said, noting it’s something the club already does. “It doesn’t address licensing at all. That is something the committee will look at and how much licensing each club will need and that’s why a committee was created, to look at that.”

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