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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – The chairman of a key House panel says a controversial bill about background checks for workers at after-school programs won’t get a hearing “in its current form” from his committee.
House Health & Human Services Chairman Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, said Tuesday he opposes a proposal (SB 156/HB 133) that stalled in a Senate committee earlier in the day.
“This is the same language from last year,” Brodeur wrote in an email. “We advised that the real issue was that we needed to look at the existing structures for licensure and meet the market demand, not exempt child care organizations from background screenings, putting our most vulnerable at risk. So no, in its current form it will not be heard.”
The bill would transfer oversight of after-school programs run by national organizations — such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts — from the state Department of Children and Families to the Department of Education.
It would also delete language passed last session that requires rigorous background checks, known as “Level II” checks, for all workers at child-care facilities, including maintenance and kitchen staffers.
Rather, the bill would require only those employees of after-school programs who work “directly with children and youth” to undergo Level II screenings.
“You can cast too wide a net … and catch a lot of people who don’t have anything to do with kids,” Senate sponsor Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, told the Senate Community Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
An alumnus of the Boys and Girls Clubs, Smith has sponsored similar versions of the bill — exempting national groups that charge little or no fees for their after-school programs — during the last two sessions.
But Smith’s colleagues remained wary Tuesday as they considered the bill filed for the 2016 session, which starts in January. Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, said he sat on the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee when it tabled Smith’s measure during the 2015 session.
“What is different about this bill from the one we voted on last (session)?” Dean asked. “I’m one of those who voted to expand and have every protection possible.”
Smith said the current bill could be amended. Senate Community Affairs Chairman Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, temporarily set aside the issue Tuesday while Smith and Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, composed an amendment. But the new language still applied only to after-school personnel who have “direct” contact with kids.
“I think everyone at this dais supports the Boys and Girls Clubs and has done so with millions of dollars of appropriations,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. “Whether some of those millions should be used to make sure some of the people who are roaming around the halls are not predators — that doesn’t bother me too much if we’re checking all the boxes to make sure everybody’s safe.”
The Level II background-check requirement passed during the spring legislative session, and Gov. Rick Scott signed it, effective July 1. Smith’s proposal during the spring session competed with the screening bill that passed.
As a result, the Level II screenings are overseen by DCF as part of the agency’s licensing of child-care programs. But the after-school programs contend they don’t provide child care since they serve kids age 6 and older — and that’s why they should be moved to the Department of Education.
“We’re not talking about making (the background checks) less effective,” said House sponsor Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota. “We’re talking about an age limit which is obviously not like a day care. So I think there needs to be a delineation. And I hope we’ll get enough education among the members, both in the Senate and the House, to understand the real reason behind this.”
Brodeur has said he would consider a tiered licensing structure, with different levels of oversight for child-care and after-school programs.
Meanwhile, the House bill was sent to four panels. It’s not yet on the agenda in the first, the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart.
“I’ll look at it,” Harrell said. “But the one thing we’re not going to do is move away from background checks.”
The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.