Naples Daily News | By Elysa Delcorto | Posted August 23, 2009 at 8:03 p.m.
COLLIER COUNTY — Sometimes safeguards to protect kids do work.
Just ask the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Florida.
They did an extensive background check on Shernon James, a Golden Gate Estates man recently accused of molesting an exchange student, and denied him access to the organization in April.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Florida CEO Michele Guptill called James’ claims that he was “a Big Brother to many,” just plain false.
However, Guptill said James’ case raises some serious questions.
“I wonder how many of these (foreign exchange) agencies are using this level of background checks,” Guptill said.
With the fallout surrounding the arrest of James for lewd and lascivious battery on a minor between 12 to 15 and distributing obscene material to a minor in Osceola County, state and local nonprofits want to reassure parents that with the right procedure, predators can be stopped in their tracks before they even get close to a child.
“We have one of the most stringent background checks around,” said Guptill.
Guptill said she could not go into particulars about why James was not accepted to the program. However, there are media reports showing that James had been arrested in 2005 on a child porn charge. He was acquitted a year later and the record was expunged.
As of Friday, James remained in the Osceola County Jail on a $25,000 bond.
Due to the expunged record, no flags were raised when James applied to volunteer as a basketball coach at the Greater Naples Branch of the YMCA.
“His background check didn’t find anything,” said YMCA spokeswoman Robin Siewers.
Siewers went on to say that the YMCA has two different background check procedures for staff and volunteers.
All staff gets a national criminal background check and that those applying to work in the YMCA’s on-site childcare program must also submit their fingerprints, which are run through the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Volunteers, however, only have to pass a local background check.
Regardless, Siewers said that at no point were any of the kids coached by James in danger.
“All of our programs we structured so they (volunteers) are still supervised by staff,” said Siewers. “No one is allowed to be alone with kids one-on-one.”
She added that no one is allowed to have practices outside of the YMCA either.
“The safety and well being of the children in our care has been and always will be our main priority,” said Siewers, who acknowledged that the YMCA was dismayed by the news and that they’re taking the case very seriously. “We contacted all the parents to let them know. We wanted to make sure that they knew and addressed any concerns that they had.”
According to Guptill, to join Big brothers Big Sisters the first things prospective volunteers have to do is meet with an intake specialist.
Guptill said the specialists are trained to detect pedophiles, do background checks and interviews.
“They are trained in asking the deeper questions,” said Guptill.
After an initial meeting with the specialist, the applicants then still have to fill a lengthy application and obtain five letters of reference.
In addition, they have to provide the nonprofit with a copy of their driver license and insurance cards.
Then once they’ve completed all that, they still have to go through an eight-page intake assessment with the specialist.
“We have had people come into our lobby, hear that it’s the next step and they will walk out,” said Guptill, who called the process intense.
Only when they get the go ahead from the specialist, Guptill said prospective volunteers are then sent to the Collier Sheriff’s Office to be fingerprinted.
The prints are then sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where a nationwide background check — going as far back as the 1940s — is done. Guptill said fingerprinting is the best way to protect children.
During the time it takes for the prints to be run, the intake specialist is talking to references.
“Our No. 1 priority is child safety,” said Guptill.
But that’s not even the last part of the application process.
“Once they pass all that, the specialist checks for local info,” Guptill said. “They get Googled three times over.”
If a person comes back with any history of violence they are automatically rejected from the program. The same goes for bad driving records or questionable histories.
Sometimes even if the kids don’t have that much direct contact, some nonprofits require that volunteers still undergo stringent application procedures.
That’s the case with Florida’s Guardian Ad Litem Program, said spokeswoman Deborah Moore.
“Our volunteers don’t actually physically care for the kids, they represent them as advocates (in court),” said Moore. “They insure the child is being well taken care of.”
Moore said the Guardian Ad Litem program has extensively trained its staff, which interviews all of the Guardian applicants.
“This is a very important responsibility that our advocates have,” she said.
Moore said that in addition to doing a criminal background check and having their fingerprints vetted through FDLE, applicants are individually screened and interviewed.
“They complete a volunteer application,” said Moore. “But it’s very important that we meet with each individual.”
And although there are always some bad seeds, Guptill said there are still groups out there with the well-being of kids in mind.
“There are a lot of good agencies out there doing great work,” she said.