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O.C. Red Cross Loses Volunteers Over Policy

Times Staff Writer

Nearly a quarter of the 400 active Red Cross volunteers in Orange County have stopped serving the organization because of a new policy that requires them to submit to the possibility of credit checks, the nonprofit said Saturday.

Orange County is among a handful of chapters nationwide which have begun conducting background checks -- from crimes to credit -- on volunteers, said Lynn Howes, a local Red Cross spokeswoman.

The move is an attempt to increase security in the relief organization, which works closely with law enforcement, other government agencies and -- increasingly -- cash from fund-raisers, Howes said. The national Red Cross is trying out similar policies in other chapters, she said, but the decision to conduct background checks in Orange County was made by local directors.

“Since Sept. 11, things have changed in the world,” Howes said. “We are in the business of being prepared, and this is about being prepared.”

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In July 2002, the local chapter started requiring complete background checks of all new volunteers. In December, it sent packets to its 400 active volunteers -- the chapter has a database of 4,000 volunteers, but most are not considered active -- asking for the same thing: information to conduct criminal background and driver’s license checks and Social Security numbers so the agency could check financial backgrounds.

Some longtime volunteers said the request for their Social Security numbers was the final straw.

“I was dumbfounded and perplexed,” said Michael Solorza, 32, a five-year volunteer who has been deactivated for his refusal to turn over his Social Security number. “I didn’t understand their need for my credit report.”

Howes said the policy is necessary because volunteers sometimes work at fund-raisers and handle large sums of money. She said credit checks will not be conducted unless a volunteer is working in a capacity where financial background information is pertinent.

Since the policy was implemented, no credit checks have been done, Howes said. And when they are, she added, volunteers will be forewarned.

“Put that in writing and I will sign,” said Joe Greenwald, 41, of Orange, another deactivated volunteer. “I will not sign a blanket authorization” to check finances.

The deadline for volunteers to turn in the complete background check forms, including the credit checks, was March 21. About 100 didn’t return the forms, Howes said.

Volunteers such as Greenwald and Solorza said they don’t understand why the Red Cross needs to know personal data if they are handing out blankets to disaster victims.

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“I have a very distinctive role,” said Solorza, a member of a disaster response team that helps set up shelters during emergencies. “I never handle money in the field. Why do I need to submit to a credit check?”

Solorza would not have to necessarily, but the Irvine resident said he was never clearly informed of this.

The flap has the disaster relief agency doing damage control. “We are calling [volunteers] to listen to their concerns and how we can address those,” Howes said. “There has been some misunderstanding about the credit checks.”


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