Compulsory police background checks should be carried out on anyone who wants to work with children, the head of a child protection charity said yesterday.
Debi Ray-Rivers, the director of Saving Children and Revealing Secrets, said that police vetting should be a requirement for anyone involved with a “youth-serving organisation”.
She added that the recent discovery of a court letter given to sex offender Malik Zuill that wrongly listed him as having no convictions, showed that police records are the most reliable indicators of a criminal past.
Ms Ray-Rivers said: “This incident revealed a significant error with potentially serious and harmful consequences, had the court’s error and the subsequent actions of Malik Zuill not been discovered and made public.
“It is our hope that protocols and checks and balances have now been implemented by the courts, to ensure such an error does not occur in the future.”
She added: “It is preferable and prudent that youth-serving organisations and employers accept only background checks conducted by the Bermuda Police Service and/or the relevant police services of the city or country where an employee or volunteer was previously a resident.
“This will ensure authorised and verified vetting of persons working with children.”
Zuill, who was sentenced to five months in prison in July for a sex assault on an underage girl, was given a letter from court services in August that said he had had no convictions in the past three years.
He used the letter in an attempt to remove articles about his conviction.
But Larry Mussenden, the Director of the Department of Public Prosecutions, later confirmed Zuill’s conviction, which was earlier reported by The Royal Gazette. The judiciary said in a notice published last month in the Official Gazette that court worker Donneisha Butterfield, whose signature was on the document, “did not do anything fraudulent”.
The notice added: “The document in question was issued in error and additional administrative measures have been put into place to ensure that this does not reoccur.”
The judiciary declined to answer questions about what sort of investigation was conducted, what caused the error or what measures have been put in place to prevent further mistakes.
Ms Ray-Rivers said: “To offset the cost to youth-serving organisations, many of which are charities, it is imperative that persons who are shortlisted for positions with youth-serving organisations be required to provide police vetted background checks to the potential employer for the safety of Bermuda’s children.
“It is our understanding that background checks for volunteers working with youth-serving organisations are free of cost.”
The Children’s Act prohibits anyone listed on a child abuse register to work with children.
This includes areas such as healthcare, education, social work, the police service and recreational groups.
Kelly Hunt, the executive director of the Coalition for the Protection of Children, explained that mandatory police vetting would help strengthen the law.
She added: “Private companies, churches and organisations should not wait for this to be mandated in law, but rather lead by example with this position.
“Codes of conduct, vulnerable person’s policies, and official police reports that identify previous convictions of assault or abuse against a minor should become the norm for everyone entrusted in roles or positions around young people in our community.”
A spokesman for the Bermuda Police Service confirmed that police vetting was not mandatory for charity staff.
But he added that the process was encouraged and cost $100 for every criminal record check.
Island charities are exempted from the charge, although volunteers at international charities with Bermudian operations have to pay the fee.