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AmeriCorps volunteers to undergo criminal background checks

WASHINGTON — Criminal background checks have become a growth industry, and on Friday the trend grew a bit more.

Senior citizens and others participating in the help-your-neighbor AmeriCorps program will now submit to background checks before getting certain assignments, under new federal rules. Volunteers working with the young, the old and the disabled will all be investigated.

"We just need to protect the people," said Mercedes Padilla, who works with the Foster Grandparents program in Stockton, Calif. "Just think of it, if it were your parents or your child involved."

The rules made final Friday will cover some 31,000 foster grandparents like those working alongside Padilla and 15,000 "senior companions," who together comprise what's called the Senior Corps.

They work with children and the frail elderly. They check homework, visit the bedridden and assist with everyday chores.

The background checks also will be required of some AmeriCorps members, who number about 75,000 nationwide.

The new rules cover those working with children age 17 and under and seniors age 60 and over, as well as the disabled. The new requirements don't extend to those in other positions, like the workers helping rebuild flood-ravaged New Orleans.

Many AmeriCorps affiliates already conduct background checks of potential participants. The new rules impose these checks nationwide and set minimum standards.

For instance, no identified sex offender will be permitted to participate in an AmeriCorps or Senior Corps program.

"We thought it was appropriate to create this uniform, baseline requirement since our grantees are using federal funds to operate these programs," explained Tom Bryant, associate general counsel for the Corporation for National and Community Service.

The Corporation for National and Community Service was established in 1993 as an umbrella organization overseeing various national service projects, which in turn come under such names as AmeriCorps, Vista and the Senior Corps. Funding flows to workers assigned to nonprofits, community groups and state and local agencies.

Spurred by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and by periodic horror stories about hidden pasts, some want to expand background checks further. Skeptics question the checks' cost and potential implications. Everyone, though, recognizes the trend.

The number of fingerprints submitted to the FBI for general background purposes has leaped more than 44 percent since 2001. In 2005, the FBI received 9.7 million fingerprint submissions for "non-criminal justice" purposes.

These background checks already exceed the number of requests submitted for criminal investigations.

The new rules require two checks for the Senior Corps and selected AmeriCorps participants. The individual state's criminal registry must be checked, generally at a potential cost of $12 to $25. The Justice Department's online sex offender database must also be checked; this is free.

Special approval is needed to gain access to the FBI database, which includes fingerprints and criminal history records for 47 million people. For instance, potential banking, nuclear energy or security guard workers may be checked against the FBI database.

The FBI database includes information from all states. The individual state registries do not.

"Organizations serving children and other vulnerable populations need to be mindful that no screening process is foolproof," the Corporation for National and Community Service acknowledged Friday.

Two years ago, for instance, the director of an AmeriCorps program in Michigan's Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District was fired after officials discovered he had served five years in prison. Similar incidents have prompted efforts to extend checks further.

Democratic Rep. Tim Mahoney of Florida has introduced a bill this year requiring that all nursing home workers nationwide undergo criminal background checks, while Republican Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida introduced a bill requiring the same of election workers. In time, many employers could likewise start tapping the federal records.

"We believe that new authority should be established allowing broader access by private sector users to the fingerprint-based criminal history information maintained by the FBI and state repositories," the Justice Department stated last year in a report issued to Congress.