‘Uber for kids’ questioned: State regulators seek stricter background checks for tech-transit companies

San Francisco resident Shannon Cogen once relied on a nanny to ferry her daughter from San Francisco Friends School in the Mission to her soccer games in the Outer Sunset.

Cogen’s daughter, now 13, outgrew the nanny. So the family turned to Shuddle, a tech-transit company touted as an “Uber for kids.”

Shuddle says many of its drivers are former or current child-care professionals. “It gives me a little extra comfort,” Cogen said of Shuddle’s child care focus.
Despite the praise by some, California regulators are now re-evaluating laws governing Shuddle, along with other tech transit companies like Uber and Lyft.

Like its famous tech-transit cousins, stricter criminal background checks may soon be required of Shuddle’s drivers.

Shuddle was unable to send a statement before press time. But in a filing to the California Public Utilities Commission in May, Shuddle’s attorneys from law firm Holland & Knight came out swinging, heavily criticizing proposed stricter criminal checks.

“The fingerprint databases are limited in scope, confined to California, costly, time consuming, and less effective than modern multi-pronged approaches to background screening,” the attorneys wrote.

The CPUC, which regulates tech transit companies, is considering requiring Shuddle to use checks from the nonprofit semigovernmental entity Trustline.

Shuddle’s attorneys critiqued Trustline for relying on U.S. mail delivery to send its reports, taking two weeks to process checks, and its cost of $135 per applicant.

Shuddle attorneys said its smartphone app lets parents see who is driving their children. Youth must use a secret password when picked up by their drivers — a feature Shuddle claims is among myriad innovations that renders tougher checks unnecessary.

Shuddle repeatedly cited money as a barrier, saying third-party checks offer “safer options in lesser time, at lower cost.”

“If the Commission requires TNCs to use Trustline,” attorneys wrote, “it will eliminate innovative businesses that provide safer alternatives.”

As of March, investment in Shuddle hit $12 million, according to technology publications. It operates only in the Bay Area and has over 200 drivers, who are mostly women. Shuddle requires a $9 monthly membership fee, in addition to per-ride fees which are comparable to Uber.

Uber and Lyft do not allow unaccompanied minors in vehicles. Of Shuddle, San Francisco Unified School District spokeswoman Heidi Anderson said “we wouldn’t encourage parents to use this kind of ridesharing.”

Representatives of Trustline say Shuddle can be safe if it utilizes more thorough criminal checks.

Cindy Mall is senior program manager at the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network, which represents Trustline. Trustline is used by nanny agencies statewide, Mall said, plus child care facilities at 24 Hour Fitness and other businesses.

Trustline uses government databases from the FBI and Department of Justice, Mall said, which offer more robust and up-to-date records than third party checks.

Those companies don’t always scour all of California’s 58 counties, she said, which Trustline does. She said Trustline also uses fingerprint databases, as opposed to just name and social security number checks. Name checks can be easily fooled, said Mall. John P. Smith turns up different results than John Smith, for instance.

And Trustline notifies employers of new convictions, while third party checks do not.

Mall does concede Trustline’s faults: it is slower than third-party checks, more expensive, and doesn’t scour databases outside California.

Through fingerprinting, Trustline uncovers at least six nanny applicants a month who have committed what government calls “nonexemptible crimes,” Mall said. Those are “a major felony conviction, like manslaughter, or registered sex offenders,” she said.

Mall, who is a parent of two, said Trustline’s expense and thoroughness are key in protecting children.

“To me,” she said, “if they value the kids and their safety, what’s two weeks and a hundred dollars? I think kids lives are worth that.”
joe@sfexaminer.com

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