LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. - Wearing the hats of assistant coach, team mom and concessions lady, Sonya Perez tries to be near her children when they participate in after-school sports, but she admits she can't be in two places at once when her son and daughter are on different soccer fields at the same time.
"You don't know who's in the park," the suburban Atlanta mom said about the safety of her 13-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.
With the help of several companies, the National Recreation and Park Association is trying to provide peace of mind to parents through a new program that screens youth coaches and other volunteers for criminal offenses and provides cleared individuals with photo ID before they step on a community soccer field or into a senior citizen's center.
The program launched in the fall, and more than 56,300 volunteers in 34 park districts across the country already have either been screened or are in the process of being screened. Park districts pay a flat fee of $995 to enroll and then $22.50 for each person screened. Other nationwide background checks typically cost around $35 per person.
The program has turned away 4,500 potential volunteers who failed background checks because of sex offenses, violent crimes or other felonies on their records. The program recommends that park districts reject anyone convicted of a sex offense or violent crime and anyone with any kind of felony in the past 10 years, ranging from drug offenses to fraud.
It also recommends rejecting applications with recent misdemeanors involving violence, alcohol, drugs or minors, such as providing alcohol to children or contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
The program has critics. Fordham University law professor Joel Reidenberg says any mistakes in the background checks can lead to lawsuits.
"I would be very hesitant if I were a local parks and recreation department to support this," he said. "They are probably far better off focusing on how the children are supervised."
Though many park districts already use background checks on volunteers, such screening typically is limited to an individual's criminal record in a particular state. However, the national association's program, Operation TLC2, screens volunteers for crimes from all 50 states.
The parks association and others say this appears to be the first program of its kind.
"The photo ID badge is something we've never had before. Coaches were identified by a shirt or as 'that guy or gal standing over by the side,'" said Andre Pichly, the recreational superintendent for West Sacramento, Calif.
Ms. Perez's park district, Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation, will begin using the program this month in Mustang Athletics, its athletic league. The county is starting by picking up the program fees for 20 coaches in the soccer and baseball programs to handle this spring's sports season, said Tina Fleming, the park district's deputy director.