On July 1, 2015, Governor Tom Wolf signed into law Act 15 (House Bill 1276), which amends Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law (CPSL) to clarify the requirements of employers and volunteer-based organizations to provide for criminal background checks and child abuse clearances of their employees and volunteers who work directly with children.  Act 15 provides much-needed, and desired, clarification to a well-intentioned statute that had a very broad effect.

Prior to the passage of Act 15, the CPSL, among other things, required employees and volunteers who are responsible for a child’s welfare or “having direct contact with children” to complete three background checks:  (1) a state criminal history check; (2) a state child abuse clearance; and, (3) an FBI criminal background check.  For purposes of the CPSL, a “child” is an individual under age 18.  Individuals “having direct contact with children” were defined broadly and included those with “the care, supervision, guidance or control of children or routine interaction with children.”  The ambiguity of this definition, as well as other provisions of the statute, generated confusion for employers and volunteer-based organizations, which struggled to identify which employees and volunteers were be subject to the background check requirements.  There was also significant concern about the cost of complying with the requirements for employees and, especially, volunteers.

While the CPSL background check requirements were part of many measures passed in 2013 to help protect children and were well-intentioned, the ambiguity of the statute caused confusion and raised significant concerns for employers and volunteer-dependent organizations.  Recent amendments to the CPSL included numerous revisions that were designed to provide much-needed clarification and address many of the concerns raised by employers and volunteer-based organizations as well as entities that often, but not regularly, use volunteers in day-to-day operations such as school districts.  Most notably for employers, the amendments have clarified and narrowed the pool of employees and volunteers that will be considered to have “direct contact with children.”  As amended, the CPSL now clarifies that “routine interaction” with children is “regular and repeated contact that is integral to a person’s employment or volunteer responsibilities.”  The amendments also streamline definitions so the statute is written in furtherance of the intent of the bill.  Additionally, the amendments extended the obligation to renew the background checks from every three years to every five years.

Also significant is a welcome exemption for colleges and universities.  These institutions of higher education are now exempted from obtaining clearances for employees whose contact with children involves matriculated students who are enrolled with the institution or prospective students visiting the institution.  Additional exemptions include but are not limited to administrative employees who have no direct contact with children, minor employees between the ages of 14 through 17 with other qualifying conditions, as well as employees or volunteers with a J-1 visa and certain qualifying conditions.

In addition to narrowing the breadth of the background check requirements, Act 15 also includes provisions easing the financial burden related to these requirements.  Specifically, the amendments codified a waiver of certain background check fees announced by Governor Wolf in mid-June 2015.  Effective July 25, 2015, the fees for the state police criminal history and child abuse clearance checks will be waived for volunteers and reduced for all other applicants from $10 to $8 each.  Those needing background checks for employment-related reasons remain responsible for the cost. The fee waiver does not apply to the FBI background check, which is the most expensive of the three required checks.

While the requirement to complete these checks for new employees “having direct contact with children” has been in effect since January 1, 2015, the deadline for compliance with respect to new volunteer background checks is extended under these recent amendments to August 25, 2015.  Employees who were existing employees as of January 1, 2015, but who had not completed the required background checks within the past five years, must complete the checks by December 31, 2015.

Although Act 15 provides welcome clarification of who must comply with background check requirements, those employers, volunteer-based organizations,  and school districts affected by the law must take prompt and significant steps in order to meet their obligations under the law.  If you have questions about your obligations under the Child Protective Services Act and the effect of these recent amendments on your obligations, please contact any member of our Labor & Employment Practice Group or Kathleen Duffy Bruder in our Government Relations Group.