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Civil rights group alarmed at vast scope of criminal records checks

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The B.C. Civil Liberties Association today expressed deep concern over the wide range of government and crown corporation employees being subjected to criminal records checks under the Criminal Records Review Act.

The rights group received two complaints from ICBC employees about a memo informing them that they must undergo a criminal record check. The memo lists positions covered, including claims adjusters and examiners, dispute resolution advisors, material damage technical supervisors, claims managers and “any other position/occupation which would have occasion to perform work with persons under age 19 in an isolated setting”. An ICBC official claimed that the Corporation had received advice from the Attorney General’s Ministry on compiling the list. This was confirmed by an official from the A.G..

Copies of the memo and background information are available from the BCCLA office.

“The BCCLA gave grudging approval to the Act in 1996 when we were assured that only employees who in the normal course of their jobs were in a position of trust or authority over children would be covered,” said BCCLA president Craig Jones. “Now we find out that the government is taking the view that any employee who could possibly have unsupervised contact with anyone under 19 is covered. That means the vast majority of government and crown corporation employees is being screened, at a huge cost to taxpayers and an invasion of privacy on a mammoth scale.”

The government’s current interpretation of the law may not be legally mistaken, but it goes well beyond what was originally intended. In a news release issued when the Act was introduced in 1995, then A.G. Colin Gabelmann said, “This legislation will help prevent convicted sex offenders from teaching, working in a child-care facility, providing health services or holding virtually any position of trust with children.”

The BCCLA urges that criminal records checks be put in perspective. Most abuse of children occurs in the home, by someone the child knows, and most abusers do not have a record of sexual offences. Thus criminal record checks of government employees are far from a magic solution to the evil of child abuse. At best they screen out the tiny percentage of government employees who pose a risk because of their past behaviour and because they have regular access to children in their jobs. A review of the Act in 1998 showed that in two years, only 10 out of 313,250 employees checked were deemed to pose a risk to children.

“The BCCLA supports the law if its scope is restricted to employees who are in a position of trust or authority over children,” said Jones. “But extending it to ICBC claims adjusters who might every once in a while find themselves alone with an 18 year old automobile driver goes way too far.”

The BCCLA notes that at approximately $60 per record check—which covers only the initial screening—the cost for the first two years was almost $19 million. It wonders whether much of that money could have been better spent dealing with child abuse in other ways.

Criminal record checks pose a serious invasion of employees’ privacy. The Act list 56 “relevant” offences, many of which (such as drug trafficking, manslaughter, criminal harassment and even vagrancy) may have nothing to do with child abuse. Yet if a check reveals a hit for any one of these offences, the employer is notified that a relevant offence has turned up even before a risk assessment is conducted. Even if the person was later judged not to pose a risk (as was true of 942 of the 952 of the hits in the first two years), and even if they are only rarely in unsupervised contact with youths, the stigma of a “relevant” record may well in subtle ways permanently damage their careers.

“No one wants to cut corners when it comes to protecting children from abuse,” said Jones. “The BCCLA is not suggesting that any one who regularly works with children should be exempt. What we are saying is that when even the hope of such protection reaches the vanishing point, it can no longer be right to subject employees to invasive measures which could affect their careers, and in the process spend millions of dollars which could have been put to better use in protecting children.”