By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico
A Portales church has suspended its annual fall charity fundraising campaign while it seeks clarification on panhandling laws after a family said it was threatened with arrest for collecting door-to-door.
Toni Kiernan said she and her two sons were followed home by police officers Tuesday night after a resident complained about them knocking on doors seeking money for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Kiernan said the officers told her and her boys they would be arrested if they continued going door-to-door asking for money without a permit.
“We don’t have a lot of money and they went out and did that for other kids. It made them feel like they were going to be arrested,” she said of her 12- and 8-year-old sons.
“They’re quite upset right now. … We weren’t doing nothing but asking (residents) if they have any spare change they could donate.”
Kiernan, head of the fundraising project for First United Methodist Church in Portales, said, “We have called everybody and told them not to collect because we don’t want anybody getting in trouble.”
Police Capt. Lonnie Berry said he is not certain what was said to Kiernan and her children Tuesday night but he said legitimate fundraisers are not going to run abreast of the law.
However, if a complaint is received, officers will verify that the fundraising is associated with a legitimate organization.
Berry said most charity drives are conducted at fixed locations, and door-to-door collections are unusual in Portales and may alarm some residents.
Berry said it is a good idea for organizations to let people know ahead of time what they are doing so contributors are assured where the money is going, he said, explaining many people are suspicious of people trying to raise money at their door.
“If a church is going to collect, it’s just a good idea to let us know or let people know through the media, (because) people are going to call (police),” he said.
“When you knock on somebody’s door and ask them for money, there’s just a suspicious nature these days that’s going to cause you to get checked out.”
UNICEF’s Web site promotes a campaign called “Trick or Treat for UNICEF,” encouraging youth to help children in other countries by going door-to-door and collecting money for donations to the organization.
Church pastor Jeff Symonds said his congregation has participated in the UNICEF campaign for at least the last three years without issue.
Last year, it raised $800 and set a goal of $900 for this year, he said.
“It is a legitimate need and a legitimate charity and the children are not trying to run some kind of scam,” he said.
“Our youth group is planning to send all of our kids out in this next week and we’ve got like 30-some young people that we expect to be visiting every neighborhood in town.”