Amherst and six other communities across the state failed to conduct background checks on all the individuals who provide town-sponsored youth programs, according to an audit by the State Comptroller’s Office.
Though no evidence showed up in a test group of 396 Amherst town employees that anyone working with youth had a criminal record, the audit said the town had no written policies that require checking the background of all individuals providing youth services.
The audit also found that while the town does have an unwritten practice of performing some background checks for full- and part-time employees, that practice does not extend to seasonal employees – roughly 100 – the town hires each summer.
“At the beginning of our fieldwork, the management of the department stated that they thought that the town was conducting background checks on the seasonal staff, which was later discovered to be incorrect,” the report stated.
Amherst was the largest of eight New York communities audited and the only one in the region. The audit covered Jan. 1, 2010, to May 18, 2012. During that time, 447 Amherst employees had worked in town youth programs.
Mary-Diana Pouli, the town’s youth and recreation director, said the town was already in the process of developing a formal background-check policy for all its youth programs when state auditors came in early last year. When the Youth Department and the Recreation Department merged 2½ years ago, she said, each department had very different background requirements.
Under the current practice, she said, full- and part-time employees working in licensed programs, like the town’s after-school programs, are subject to background checks that require fingerprinting. Those who work in summer camps receive background checks through the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.
“Just because it wasn’t in writing didn’t mean it didn’t exist,” Pouli said of the town’s background-checking practices.
Youth program employees also receive training to recognize child abuse, she said.
In light of the audit findings, the town will now also have the Amherst Police Department conduct local and state background checks of seasonal employees who work with youth, such as lifeguards, Pouli said.
The audit said the town provides youth programs for approximately 50,000 children. That figure includes Little League groups and other organizations for which the town does not provide any direct supervision, Pouli said. She estimated that only about 10,000 children are directly supervised by town workers.
After the town’s Youth Board approves the policy, she said, it will be shared with the Town Board, which may offer further input.