Screening guide oversight underscores confusion over pardoned sex offenders

OTTAWA — The government’s own “best practice” guide for screening volunteers makes no mention of a critical step to identify pardoned sex offenders such as Graham James.

OTTAWA — The government’s own “best practice” guide for screening volunteers makes no mention of a critical step to identify pardoned sex offenders such as Graham James.

The oversight highlights the current confusion in the system for doing criminal background checks, and serves as a pointed reminder to organizations gearing up for the summer volunteer season to ensure they follow a rigorous screening protocol.

Under existing legislation that has been strictly enforced since last December, only the individual being screened can request a “vulnerable sector” search that would reveal a pardoned sex offence.

Yet Public Safety Canada’s own “best practice guidelines for screening volunteers” does not explain vulnerable sector searches in detail, nor make clear that they must be initiated by the individual being screened.

A Public Safety spokesman said in an emailed statement that it’s “implicitly understood that a vulnerable sector search is automatically part of the process.”

The guide acknowledges that although a person may have received a pardon, the public safety minister may unseal the record to help screen those who would work with children and other vulnerable people.

But it doesn’t spell out the fact that the volunteer must personally initiate the search and then submit fingerprints before the details of a pardoned offence can be released to the individual.

There were 887 pardons granted to sex offenders in 2009-10 and 667 the year before, according to the National Parole Board. The RCMP reports it has files for 14,584 pardoned sex offenders in its national database.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is planning legislative changes that would make it more difficult for people convicted of sex offences to obtain pardons.

While Toews’ office says it’s a good idea to request “full criminal record checks” on prospective employees and volunteers, there’s no indication he will do anything to make it easier for organizations and companies to identify pardoned sex offenders.

Professional background screeners are crying foul since the RCMP tightened up privacy provisions to restrict soccer leagues, churches and others from asking directly whether a pardoned sex offence exists in police databases.

Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland says the restrictions are unacceptable.

“It’s deeply concerning. The fact is right now it is nearly impossible for organizations to get access to information on whether or not somebody has a history as a sex offender,” Holland said in interview.

“Now, somebody like Mr. James is in a position where he could be placed in an authority position over youth. That’s clearly unacceptable.”

The RCMP says it’s merely respecting privacy provisions set out in the law.

“A criminal records check won’t reveal the existence of a conviction for which a pardon’s been granted,” said Supt. Chuck Walker. “That’s the whole idea.”

In any event, a typical police records check — even a vulnerable sector check — is not a panacea for volunteer groups who want assurances a new recruit has had no trouble with the law, Walker says.

A thorough check involves looking in local police indices as well as the national criminal records system, he said.

“Let’s say there was no flag, and yet there are 10 incidences of police contact in the local police records database where this individual has been identified as somebody who prowls parks, they’ve had things said about them, there’s been accusations made that — either because there was an unco-operative witness, or they couldn’t amass enough evidence to lay a charge — it never made it out of local police indices. It was never a matter before the courts.”

Walker argues such local police checks should be a routine part of screening.

“It’s not legislated. My view is that it probably should be, because the vulnerable sector — or the pardoned sex offender registry query — is one-third of the entire puzzle. It’s not a complete picture.”

Lawyer and author Michael Carabash says the disparate criminal records system is a disjointed mass of confusing data.

“The criminal records system needs a complete overhaul. How can people expect to know anything about criminal records if it’s unclear to me, a lawyer who has researched the damn thing for months?”

Simpler record-check procedures would be welcome because the current time-consuming process can be a bothersome headache for potential volunteers, said Don Lapierre of umbrella group Volunteer Canada.

Lapierre would also like to see a truly national system of volunteer-screening procedures. “If there was some sort of common approach across the country, that would be beneficial to the sector.”

Public Safety and volunteer groups stress that a criminal records check is only one element of a comprehensive screening program that includes an interview with applicants, personal reference vetting, supervision and evaluation, and followup with program participants.

“There’s no screening process that’s 100 per cent foolproof,” said Susie Mackie, a spokeswoman for Scouts Canada, which has a multi-layered system.

The organization’s interviewers are trained to look for anything unusual when talking to prospective volunteers. Mackie said it’s also a good idea for parents to get to know volunteer leaders and to ask their children about the programs they’re enrolled in.

For the last 10 years, Scouts Canada has also had a policy of requiring two fully screened adult leaders to be present with children.

Shelley Goertzen, general manager of the Kanata Soccer Club just west of Ottawa, echoes that suggestion — for everyone’s sake.

“We always tell our coaches to never be alone with a player that they aren’t related to,” she said. “Just as a matter of general principle, don’t put yourself in situations where anybody’s conduct could be called into question.”