I Volunteered to Coach My Child, Not Be Fingerprinted

Still, I was ready to go. Until I found the new rules don't do much at all to truly protect kids from predators.

By Nick Smith 23 Feb 2011 |

Nick Smith is a veteran public school teacher who lives on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. You can read his series Tyee reader-funded series "Teaching that Inspires" here.

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Requirement seems more about optics, given lack of follow-through.

Just after the Christmas holidays, I found myself at the local RCMP detachment getting fingerprinted.

My only crime was that I allowed myself to get roped into coaching a pack of kids when I signed my eight-year-old up for cross-country ski lessons. Reporting to the RCMP station for a criminal record check required of volunteer coaches, I was told that my gender and birth date matched that of a sex offender -- or I should say, one of 14,000 sex offenders -- who may or may not have changed his name.  I would have to come back the next day for fingerprinting, according to a ruling that came down last summer.

I figured that if they were going to treat me like a criminal, they better have a good reason, so I showed up ready to cross-examine the constable on duty before I started pressing my personal identifiers into any inkpad. As the officer guided me to a bare windowless room in the back of the station, I began by asking him what will happen with my prints once they are done with them.

He was neither rude nor polite, but was clearly not in the mood for conversation. I soon realized that this was just about fingerprinting me and that I wasn't getting any questions answered. Despite the fact that I had done nothing wrong, accusation hung heavy in the air.

I now wish that I had started asking questions before I showed up at the station. If I had spent some time digging for answers earlier rather than later, I would have found out that the whole process is not based on any person or incident but merely seeks to close a legal loophole, and that at present, it is unenforced.

It is also putting a huge strain on local RCMP who suddenly find themselves saddled with fingerprinting thousands of innocent people like myself while being given no extra time for doing so. Lastly, since it takes up to four months, most coaching seasons are over before the results come in.

Protecting 'our most vulnerable'?

When I started asking some hard questions, none of the RCMP with whom I spoke could give me a good reason for why they were doing this. The most information I got was from a friendly receptionist who offered to make me a copy of a handout which explains that, "This is a more rigorous process intended to protect our most vulnerable citizens from anyone with a history of sexual offences who has changed their name." She unpinned a news article, from a corkboard and offered to copy that also.

Initially, I had assumed that the RCMP must have done some sort of risk analysis based on the number of pardoned sexual offenders who had changed their names. From this, they could give me a rough idea of the chances that a predator could sign up to volunteer with children in our community.

I asked Sgt. Stuart Falebrinza, who handles media requests at the Sechelt RCMP detachment, what this new ruling is based on. Was it a series of cases, an individual or some kind of criminal pattern that has now been recognized? He apologized for not being able to answer this question, but offered to respond by email within a week. His researched response was that he has "no idea if this is based on a particular incident."

I also asked him who was responsible for enforcing this new policy. "This really has nothing to do with the RCMP. We don't enforce this," was his reply.

No one else is enforcing it either. One RCMP detachment employee confessed that most of the coaches out there are not bothering to get any criminal record check at all. It does not take a genius to figure out that a policy that is unenforced is essentially useless.

Calling Ottawa

According to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, the collection of personal information by government organizations can only be justified when there is "a pressing societal concern" that poses a "substantial, imminent problem." Here, I take "substantial" to mean "having substance." It requires some facts rather than a theory around potentiality.

I decided that this was worth phoning the head office of the RCMP in Ottawa to get the story straight from the horse's mouth. When I spoke with Constable Lucy Shorey, she assured me that I would find the answers to all of my questions on the RCMP website set up for just this purpose.

I told her that I had read all of the material on the site, yet I could find no information about the size of the risk involved here. What she said was, "That is not an RCMP question. That is not our job." I thought that it seemed like the very essence of any RCMP member's job to assess the nature and size of any threat that they are responding to, but she did not seem to think so.

I also asked her why I wasn't given the option of producing a birth certificate that would prove I hadn’t changed my name.

"Documents can be falsified," she replied. So I have been fingerprinted because there could be pardoned sexual offenders who might have changed their names and who could possibly forge birth certificates to conceal their new identities so that they can coach children. Yet, I have not been given one shred of evidence that this is happening or has ever happened.

'What do you get for what you give up?'

Micheal Von, of the BC Civil Liberties Association, is a woman with a keen intellect who is passionate about such privacy issues.

During a lengthy phone conversation she told me about first getting wind of this story last summer. Her first impression was that "the reporter must have gotten the story wrong." Her disbelief stemmed from the fact that it is "unprecedented in Canada," where your legal identification no longer identifies you.

We discuss the supposed threat that is being addressed here and whether children are actually being protected by this ruling. "The problem with risk analysis," she explains, "is that there is always a risk." She asks, "What do you get for what you give up?"

Von makes the point that "the volunteer sector is having a hard time as it is. One of the ways we protect children is by having responsible overseers. If that number atrophies, then we have created a real risk."

We both agree that kids are safest where there are many people looking out. "When you introduce automatic suspicion," she points out, "you fragment that community."

She goes on: "This is not a proportionate response to a threat. It doesn't add up."

One of Von's concerns is the "movement towards more population-based biometrics."

She tells me that I should be concerned about my fingerprints being digitized. She doubts that some investigator in Ottawa will be looking at them with a magnifying glass. "I would be concerned about what happens to this information." She explains that "the RCMP are reluctant to delete records." The standard practice, she tells me, "is to put in a notation" about how the data was collected.

When I first asked Lucy Shorey about how my fingerprints were sent to Ottawa, she assured me that they were sent by mail and that they would be looked at through an old-fashioned magnifying glass. Afterward, they would be destroyed. However, she followed up with an email in which she corrected herself. It turns out that "paper-based applications. . . are scanned and converted to electronic documents."

I will believe the RCMP for now that it does not matter how my prints were transferred, as they will destroy them "either way." However, I am still not satisfied. If there is no culprit and no victim to point fingers at, why are they going to all of this trouble?

Von's one word answer, "optics," explains a lot.

"There is the rhetoric, 'there is nothing we don't do.'" It clearly puts the police on the side of the parents and children, rather than the side in which they could be seen as defending the offenders, she explains.

What I’ll tell my children

I have two young boys who both have Facebook accounts. I do my best to teach them about guarding their personal information.

"Don't give out your personal information just because someone asks for it," I tell them. They have both seen videos warning them about posting pictures online that could resurface at an inopportune time. I have done my best to teach them that digital records are a bit like rumours in that you cannot know how far they have spread and you can never call them back.

So, I will come down squarely on the side of my children by telling them that I have let them down by doing something I have told them not to do. I will warn them about people who treat you like a criminal in the name of keeping you safe.

I would rather teach them to guard their freedom than to freely give it up in the name of closing some loophole.  [Tyee]

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