Jack Knox: Lone voice raises alarm for kids' sake
Sep 23 2012
Can you be sure your child’s teacher or daycare worker isn’t a pervert with a criminal past?
No? Neither can the government, fears Beth Cougler Blom.
The Victoria woman wants the province to change the way the Justice Ministry does criminal record checks of people who work with kids.
Those checks, she says, are less comprehensive than those done by police — meaning someone with a recent criminal conviction, or even a sex offender who moves here from another province, can escape detection.
“People are at risk — not just kids, but vulnerable adults as well,” she says.
The Justice Ministry, for its part, defends its practices, calls them thorough.
But Cougler Blom, who became concerned while working for a volunteer agency, is not alone. This spring, several such groups recommended their members choose to have their volunteers vetted by the police, not the province. That option, however, is not available to many employers.
At issue is the province’s Criminal Records Review Program, which applies to people who work around children or vulnerable adults in publicly funded or regulated organizations: schools, daycares, hospitals and so on.
The Justice Ministry runs those people through a database operated by the Canadian Police Information Centre. That’s supposed to reveal whether someone has been convicted of a serious crime anywhere in Canada.
But RCMP headquarters in Ottawa confirms CPIC has a huge backlog, 433,000 fingerprint files awaiting entry into the system.
That’s one reason why background checks done by the police also routinely troll through a number of other information sources, including PRIME, the information-sharing system used by all B.C. police forces. PRIME has more up-to-date records and will also show if a person is currently under investigation for a crime.
There’s also something called a vulnerable-sector check, designed to weed out the approximately 15,000 convicted Canadian sex offenders who have received pardons, and whose identities are held in a separate CPIC data bank. The checks are done by the RCMP, which for the past couple of years has depended on the expanded use of fingerprinting to catch pardoned sex offenders who may have changed their names to avoid detection.
The RCMP says those fingerprint checks have resulted in 312 people being red-flagged across Canada since July 1, 2010.
The vulnerable-sector process is time-consuming, though, sometimes taking up to eight weeks to complete. When the number of B.C. applicants requiring fingerprinting jumped from 3,750 a year to 20,000 in 2010, community groups complained the red tape was driving away volunteers. So the Justice Ministry — though not the police — suspended the practice.
The ministry felt safe in doing so in part because B.C. is one of only two provinces that requires fingerprinting when someone applies for a legal name change, ensuring that his criminal record sticks with him when he assumes a new identity. (B.C. began doing so in 2002 after the Times Colonist’s Louise Dickson discovered Gilbert Paul Jordan — B.C.’s notorious Boozing Barber, implicated in the alcohol-related deaths of at least seven women — was among the predators using a loophole in the Name Act to avoid detection.)
Justice Minister Shirley Bond says the name-change requirement, the use of CPIC, a check of the provincial corrections system databank and other measures are all part of a “rigorous” process. “Because of all of these steps, a vulnerable-sector check has very rarely ever led to a positive match in B.C.,” she said in a written statement.
Others aren’t so confident. In May, after non-profit groups persuaded government to give them the choice of having criminal record checks done by the police instead of the ministry, Volunteer Resources British Columbia, Volunteer B.C., and Volunteer Victoria recommended their members do just that. They did so in part because of the cost — the ministry’s checks cost $20 per volunteer, while the police do them for free — but also because they saw the same gaps seen by Cougler Blom.
Schools, hospitals and other employers covered by the Criminal Records Review Act don’t have a choice, must still have checks done through the ministry’s program. They aren’t complaining, though.
That leaves Cougler Blom as the lone voice sounding the alarm, but the Victoria woman has hit a wall, a series of letters to government resulting in some sympathy but no action.