New Ohio guidelines: 4-H volunteers face record, fingerprint checks

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COLUMBUS – Volunteers may take on a whole new set of responsibilities come Nov. 1, when volunteer screening guidelines drafted by Ohio State University Extension take effect.

The new policy dictates a comprehensive procedure all 4-H advisers, committee members and any new or potential extension volunteers must clear before being allowed to work with children, the elderly or disabled persons on two or more occasions.

4-H impact. Although the policy was developed for all of Extension, the new guidelines will have the most impact in the 4-H program because of the large number of volunteers working with minors statewide.

In 2001, the state office had on record somewhere between 26,000 and 28,000 recognized 4-H volunteers. That number included 3,000 first-time volunteers and a number of uncounted persons who donate their time and talents, according to Ryan Schmiesing, interim leader of program and volunteer risk management and special projects for Ohio State Extension.

Senate bill. The updated policy and procedures are an attempt to implement recommended “best practices” being encouraged by the state legislature and the public.

According to Keith Smith, director of Ohio State Extension, the new policy and procedures were drafted specifically in response to the expectations from parents, families, community members and service recipients, as well as from Ohio Senate Bill 187, which outlines procedures for selecting volunteers working with minors.

The bill was signed into law in December 2000 and became effective in late March of this year.

New rules. All potential extension volunteers working with members of a vulnerable population – minors, adults age 65 and over and individuals with disabilities – will be required to complete the selection process, Schmiesing said.

The policy will be applied only to new applicants who hope to become a volunteer in the organization. A certain amount of grandfathering will occur, but volunteers must contact their county office for details.

The process will benefit the organization in allowing it to know who represents 4-H and in what capacity and ensure the university has the right people working with members and serving as appropriate role models, Schmiesing said.

Selection process. The selection process will require potential volunteers to receive a position description; complete an application, including references; complete a fingerprint and criminal background check and interview; and agree to and sign a document outlining volunteer standards of behavior.

Prior to the updated guidelines, volunteers may not have been interviewed by their county agent, agreed to the standards of behavior or been given a position description, Schmiesing said.

Historically, volunteers were never subjected to fingerprint or criminal background checks.

“A lot of our current volunteers have accepted the [fingerprint and criminal background] checks quite well. A Department of Justice study even told us that people don’t mind going through a check if it will be used to protect young people,” Schmiesing said.

If a potential volunteer has a disqualifying offense on their record, he or she cannot volunteer, Schmiesing said. Offenses not listed in the guidelines will be evaluated individually.

Challenges. With good intentions to protect young people, the new system will face challenges in each county.

County agents’ time usually used for other tasks may be compromised as they wade through paperwork and conduct interviews.

Each county will also be required to provide the necessary resources to set up fingerprinting tests. In addition, each county will determine who pays for the tests.

Teen volunteers, such as camp counselors, will not have to undergo the same checks as adults, however, teen volunteers “will continue to be screened, interviewed and trained at the highest level,” Schmiesing said.

Other organizations. Other youth organizations have similar guidelines for their volunteers.

Volunteer screening guidelines have also been used by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America since 1984, according to Walter Stefanish, executive director of the organization’s agency in Columbiana County, Ohio. The county’s agency has 48 volunteers.

“We’ve been kind of the leader in this. All the other youth programs are coming along behind,” he said.

Any person who wants to volunteer with the organization must submit an application with references. The references cannot be related to the potential volunteer and must have known them for at least a year. If the person is employed, the employer must be a reference.

Also included in the organization’s process is a police check, office interview, home visit, and a meeting with the volunteer’s parent or spouse to determine their support, Stefanish said.

Also added in the past five years is a review of an applicant’s driving record and proof of liability insurance.

More information. The new volunteer selection policy will be instituted in all areas under the jurisdiction of Ohio State Extension, including agriculture and natural resources; family and consumer sciences; community development; and 4-H youth development.

More details on the policy can be obtained by visiting www.ohio4h.org/ryan/.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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