When former Gov. Nathan Deal signed a law in May 2018 to require background checks for caregivers, it was met with a no-brainer kind of reaction.
The law, which will take effect this October, aims to root out abuse of elderly and disabled individuals through the creation of a registry that catalogs criminal background checks on owners and employees of long-term care facilities.
But that law, its extent unknown at first, is now ensnaring even volunteers for popular charity and community-based programs.
“It was recently brought to our attention that staff and volunteers of programs such as Meals on Wheels and the Senior Life Center are also subject to this new background requirement,” Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of Gainesville-Hall County Community Services, told local volunteers in an email last week shared with The Times.
For several years, advocates for the aging and disabled pushed for Georgia lawmakers to create such a registry and extend fingerprint background checks to not just owners of personal care homes and assisted-living communities, as well as private home care providers, but also to employees (and applicants) working directly with patients.
The fingerprint background checks primarily look to flag people convicted of sexual offenses, theft or forgery, drug use or distribution, or negligence in caring for the elderly or children.
But implementing the background check program for volunteers has become a daunting task, Moss said, with legitimate privacy concerns for unpaid volunteers.
“I imagine that for some of you, this new process might occur as a bit offensive, or a time-consuming burden, while others may be pleased with the increased level of security,” Moss said in the email. “Wherever you fall in the spectrum of reactions, please know that we greatly value who you are and what you do for this community.”
Moss said she understands that Meals on Wheels may lose some volunteers given the privacy concerns that accompany background checks.
“They’re already giving quite a bit with their heart,” she said in an interview.
And recruiting volunteers is already a constant challenge.
Allan Fields, a seven-year volunteer with Meals on Wheels who is also a part of the program’s “leadership council,” said he expects the fingerprint background checks to result in the loss of some volunteers, making recruitment an even bigger chore.
About 350 volunteers is an ideal number to serve the approximately 400 clients Meals on Wheels volunteers will serve in Hall County alone each year while distributing roughly 100,000 meals.
But as a former “military man” and Vietnam War veteran, Fields said the fingerprint background check was “not a big deal to me.”
On a recent afternoon, he and a few other volunteers were among the first to have their fingerprints taken.
Stephanie Hood, the Meals on Wheels coordinator for Gainesville and Hall County, entered each person’s information, pulled from their driver’s license or photo identification, into a database.
Fingerprints are taken using an electronic scanner that requires only a little moisture on the tips of the fingers, but no ink.
Each finger is pressed and rolled to ensure accuracy, but there is no palm print required. Results should be returned within about two days.
Hood said the process is just getting started, with about 260 more Meals on Wheels volunteers to schedule.
Carolyn Layfield, who has volunteered for 19 years, described the process as easy and seamless.
Layfield said she had previously been fingerprinted for her gun permit, as well as her admission to a local citizen’s police academy, so there’s some familiarity with the process that didn’t turn her off.
Evelyn Gainous, who has volunteered for the last four years, said she also wasn’t concerned because she didn’t have a criminal history to hide.
With modern technology, fears about the erosion of privacy have risen among some, while others may view privacy as an antiquated notion.
Gainous said she believes that fingerprint background checks add a level of security that ensures those in need are being served but trustworthy volunteers.
Meanwhile, Moss said the task of fingerprinting all volunteers is made more monumental by its cost.
“We project that this new regulation will cost some $7,500 the first year and a few hundred dollars every year thereafter as new volunteers join the team,” Moss said in the email to volunteers.
Fortunately, there’s a solution in place for this problem.
The Gainesville-Hall County Community Council on Aging will cover the approximately $50 cost of each individual fingerprinting for local volunteers.
In the coming months, Moss said the Gainesville-Hall Community Service Center would provide the fingerprint scanner to approve volunteers at all senior centers in the Northeast Georgia region, making the process “doubly or triply burdensome.”
The technology will also be made available to other Gainesville and Hall County government agencies and departments, such as the courts and law enforcement.
Finally, the fingerprint scanner is also being made available for public use.
In all instances, submissions are processed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“We will not have access to anyone’s records,” Moss said, adding that city and county officials will not be privy to specifics, such as the manner of crime committed or the circumstances of a criminal case, should that turn up in the background check of a volunteer. “All we will know is that they were denied.”
Meals on Wheels always looking for volunteers
If interested, contact the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center by calling 770-503-3330, in person at 430 Prior St. SE, or by contacting Stephanie Hood, program coordinator at 770-506-3335 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.