Santa’s helpers to have background checks

OKEECHOBEE — A letter was received by the Lake Okeechobee News this week, and in the letter, Shannon Hert poses the question, “What is our community doing to ensure that the man in the red suit isn’t on the naughty list?” She explains that although we would like to see the good in everyone, especially at this time of year, not everyone is actually good. She pointed out that there is no state or federal law requiring criminal background checks for Santas, but said she believed the community should “start looking deeper into those who are volunteering their time. We should be questioning why someone would volunteer to have children sit on their lap, especially when these individuals don’t have young family members in our community or aren’t allowed to be around their children or grandchildren,” she said.

Ms. Hert mentioned a news story about a Santa who was charged with abusing a 7-year-old child. “Not every Santa is a jolly, good soul, but instead is someone preying on our children, while we are blinded by our small town traditions and the spirit of the season,” she said.

When asked whether our Santas in the park are required to have background checks, Mayor Dowling Watford, who is a member of the Kiwanis Club, said there are two Santas in the city parks. One is the “city” Santa, and the other is the “Kiwanis” Santa. In neither case does the Santa go through an official screening process, but they only use men they know are reputable, and “there are ALWAYS people there to supervise and observe. No child is ever left alone with Santa,” he said.

Because the question was raised, Kiwanis Club President Don Hanna said the club has decided to ask Sheriff Noel Stephen to perform background checks on the men who normally act as Santa and has given him the information to go ahead and get this done. Mr. Hanna has no doubt the checks will be fine, but doesn’t want the public to have any lingering questions in their minds.

The city Santa is usually the mayor or a city firefighter or a city police officer.

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