When a staff member at a nonprofit is arrested for stealing financial assets or sexual misconduct with a minor, the first question by onlookers is often: Did the nonprofit do a background check? The common view is that “if only” a background check had been conducted the victimization of the nonprofit or a client of the nonprofit could have been prevented.
There is more to the story than the “could have,” “should have,” knee-jerk response.
There are a number of persistent myths about background checks that get in the way of sound screening practices. Screening prospective staff and volunteers effectively begins with understanding these myths.
According to youth protection consultant John C. Patterson, there are many kinds of background checks, but unfortunately the term has been used as a synonym for criminal history record checks, which is only one kind of background check. Patterson suggests additional forms of background checking, such as academic verification and credentialing.
There is no single database containing local, state and criminal records. Many nonprofit leaders are lulled into believing such a database exists, when they purchase screening services from a vendor advertising a “national criminal records” check.
A criminal history records check is a method for identifying past criminal activity. A “clean” record is not necessarily predictive of future activity, nor does a clean record render an applicant “safe” to work with children or other vulnerable clients.
A Better Approach
Screening prospective employees and volunteers requires planning and thoughtful action. An appropriate process begins with five considerations:
Mission and Programs: Begin by reflecting on your mission and programs. Does your service model require or prohibit one-on-one interaction between adults and children, or are all activities conducted in a group setting? In what ways could children or vulnerable adults be victimized while participating in the organization’s activities? What risk management measures or policies are in place — besides screening — to reduce the likelihood of harm?
Clients and Consumers: Do you serve children or vulnerable adults? What prior behavior, conduct or experience would render an applicant ineligible to work with your clientele? For example, an applicant with a prior history of violence would be ineligible to work with children or adults in many nonprofits.
Specific Role: What role(s) are you trying to fill? A common mistake is to use the same screening criteria for all positions at an organization. There are certain positions in most nonprofits that require additional, heightened screening, while others require a basic screening process. For example, a social worker position that will have direct responsibility for client care might require an educational credentials check, motor vehicle records check, and a criminal history background check, while the receptionist position typically would not.
Don’t order background checks (or conduct them yourself) unless you have first established clear criteria for eligibility or disqualification for the position(s) you’re seeking to fill.
Availability and Cost: Explore your options once you’ve decided that certain background checks are required. In-house personnel can perform many of the checks. In other cases, you might prefer to retain a third-party provider to coordinate background checking. The cost for background checks ranges from free to $30 or more, depending on the position (staff or volunteer) and the type of check. For example, the public has free access to the U.S. Department of Justice Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW), which links public state, territorial, and tribal sex offender registries into a national search site.
Specific Requirements: If your nonprofit is licensed or publicly funded, you might be required to undertake criminal history background checks prior to filling paid or volunteer positions. Make certain you understand the specific requirements applicable to your agency before you use background checks as a screening tool.
Unfortunately, criminal history record checks are increasingly part of an overall screening process, but their importance is too often over emphasized. In the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse cases involving nonprofit organizations, the offender did not have a prior criminal record. Screening prospective staff to work with vulnerable clients may include — but doesn’t begin or end — with a criminal history background check. E
Melanie Lockwood Herman is executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, in Leesburg, Va. To learn more about the Center, visit www.nonprofitrisk.org. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org
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