As dreadful and wretched as it seems, it has become common to hear horrific reports of children being harmed or abused by someone with a prior record of this kind of behavior. Even more horrific, some of these accounts have been connected to churches. The reality is no denomination is exempt from the risk of predators seeking to exploit those who are most vulnerable. In fact, some predators specifically choose to use the trusted environment of a church community to satisfy their vile appetites. Because Southern Baptist churches are entirely autonomous and independent of any outside ecclesiastical authorities or hierarchies, each one must take responsibility for protecting their children from such attacks.
As a Southern Baptist, the father of two boys (ages 11 and 13), the teacher of a middle-school Sunday School class, and president of a national background screening company, I have a very unique and personal view on how potentially dangerous this threat is. From that vantage point, I have developed some seasoned ideas to help churches mitigate this risk when they are considering paid and volunteer personnel.
The purpose of this article is to assist churches by: 1) recommending some simple but critical steps in considering a candidate; 2) identifying guidelines that must be followed if an outside company — a consumer reporting agency (CRA) — is used for background checks; and 3) clarifying important differences that exist in the various criminal background screening services available. Also, I've included a sidebar at the end that discusses background screening "packages" designed to help churches decide how much screening to apply in each level of volunteer and staff involvement.
Simple But Critical Steps
A church should always require candidates to fill out and submit an application (with or without a résumé) to gather as much information about candidates as possible, whether they are seeking full-time, part-time, or volunteer positions. After receiving the application, the next step is to really review the application. When you are consistent in screening, you avoid any perception of discrimination in the hiring process. This also helps reveal potential problems that might otherwise be missed. Several recommended steps that should be followed for every application are:
a. Carefully look at all dates provided on applications for any employment gaps. If a gap exists, candidates should complete the missing information with the understanding that it will be confirmed. For example, if they worked a part-time job for a brief period of time (and did not list it on the application) they need to provide missing data for your confirmation.
b. Confirm that the educational information provided is correct. Even if no graduation date is provided, enrollment dates can be verified. This is true for high school, college, and seminary enrollment.
c. Call all of the employment references provided. Dates of employment, position(s) held, and salary can usually be confirmed. At times, valuable insight into the performance of the individual may also be gathered. (For legal requirements when checking employment references, see the next section, "Components of Compliance.")
d. Calling personal references cited on an application or résumé is also recommended. Although you may expect positive remarks, you should exhaust all opportunities to learn about the candidate and confirm information provided on the application. Think of the horror if the references were contacted after an abuse situation occurred and they stated, "I wish someone would have called me before they allowed that person to work with children."
In many hiring situations, there is a tendency to rely on first impressions and/or the candidate's familiar personal references — especially if they originate from a long-time, trusted member of the church. The best practice and precaution is to exercise a consistent screening policy and process for all job candidates and volunteers, including careful scrutiny of the application and résumé.
Components of Compliance — Providing Disclosure and Gaining Permission
While it may seem strange to a church, a thorough background check should be performed for every candidate — paid or volunteer — to rule out any criminal history. While many components of a thorough background check can be gathered without using an outside agency, the assistance of a CRA may be necessary to retrieve accurate "hands-on" criminal history records, sexual offender checks, criminal database information, additional residential addresses not disclosed by a candidate, and other vital information. When a CRA is used, there are specific federal (Fair Credit Reporting Act) and state requirements that the employer and CRA must follow. In general, these requirements center on proper disclosure, notification, and responsiveness to disputes.
For more information on the FCRA requirements, go to: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/credempl.pdf and http://www.ftc.gov/os/statutes/fcradoc.pdf.
Also, California requires these steps even if the research is done solely by the employer with no assistance from a third party provider (CRA).
Any reputable CRA will be able to guide the church administration through federal and specific state requirements as well as provide examples of acceptable forms.
Understand What You Are Receiving
There are four commonly used criminal history record search options: a) the national sexual offender database; b) "national criminal databases," more accurately referred to as a "multi-state criminal databases;" c) "hands-on" county criminal records; and d) state central repository databases.
a. The National Sexual Offender Public Registry is a repository for the sexual offenders as supplied by all fifty states. This is a "must search" and the first step any organization with a vulnerable population (children, elderly, and others) should take. Most people can conduct a simple search for themselves on this easy-to-use database. Some CRAs go further using these sexual offender databases as a "pointer file" for researching other avenues for more complete information, such as matching the offender with the official state sexual offender registry and then confirming with a county criminal record check. Searching this database as a "pointer file" is highly recommended because many offenders do not list the county where the sexual offense occurred. The National Sex Offender Public Registry can be accessed through the SBC Executive Committee Web site (www.sbc.net) under "Sex Abuse Prevention," or directly at www.nsopr.gov.
b. The next step is to search "national criminal records." Usually a CRA would be employed by a church to undertake such searches, since much of the data is not easily accessed by the public. However, there are misconceptions about this database that may bring false security to those using it as their only background check tool. The term "national" implies that the database contains criminal records from every state and every criminal jurisdiction in the country. This is not the case. While there are millions of criminal records maintained in these databases, there are a large number of counties and states that do not sell their data to the database compilers. For example, neither the state of Louisiana nor any of its parishes make their data available for purchase. Therefore, a criminal conviction in Louisiana would not appear in a search of the "national" criminal database. This situation exists for any jurisdiction that does not allow their criminal records to be sold to third parties. Again, a more accurate term for these criminal databases is "multi-state" instead of "national."
The benefit from these databases is the fact they cover millions of records from all over the United States, they are instantly available, and are a relatively inexpensive way to increase the effectiveness of the overall criminal search on a candidate. These databases may find criminal records in a county where the candidate neither lived nor worked and excluded the record from their application.
c. County criminal searches are conducted by individuals who research the files by going directly (physically or electronically) to the courthouse within that jurisdiction. These records are generally considered to be the most current information available and are used by most employers. Conducting a county criminal check in every location the candidate worked or lived provides good due diligence. County criminal record searches can usually be completed within seventy-two hours by a competent CRA.
d. All states maintain central repository databases which contain criminal records of each jurisdiction within their state. Many organizations consider using state criminal record information because the scope of coverage is greater than single county searches and more accurate than the national criminal databases. However, state repositories are not as current as county courthouse searches because of the lag time in reporting information from the county level to the state repository. In addition, not all states make their information available for purchase, and of those that do, there are a variety of different access requirements and turnaround times among them. Any reputable CRA will be able to provide the details of each state's availability and access requirements. From this information organizations/employers are able to make educated decisions on which states to consider when formulating a background screening policy.
Taking these steps will not guarantee the absolute safety of our children — as long as we live in a fallen world, it is unrealistic to hold out for such a guarantee. But as stewards, we have the responsibility to take reasonable and appropriate steps to protect them as best we can.
Perhaps these steps seem involved, complicated, and unnecessary. Some may react that these recommendations are extreme, especially when applied to churches. I would respond that these are standard procedures commonly accepted and followed in the secular world — and I believe we should at least meet these basic standards in such areas. If a church asks its insurance provider its opinion on the matter, I suspect it would agree.
Furthermore, when it comes to protecting the lives and safety of our children, aren't these steps reasonable? If taking these steps can help prevent our children from being exposed to the unimaginable, isn't it worth the extra effort?
For more information on taking appropriate steps or utilizing a Consumer Reporting Agency, contact your church's insurance provider.
Criminal Background Check Packages
The following are criminal background check "packages," or groupings based on the level of responsibilities and exposure to those who are most vulnerable. They are designed to help identify any criminal or person with an otherwise questionable history before being approved to serve as a volunteer or work on staff. While these packages contain methods and suggestions, it should be noted that these should be considered minimum search packages for each position:
i. Conduct a search through a national sexual offender database
ii. Conduct a search through a multi-state criminal history database
iii. Use an "address locator" search to find any addresses (counties or states) not provided by the candidate and conduct state and county searches in these areas
iv. Conduct a criminal history search in all state and county addresses provided by the candidate on the application and those from the address locator
b. Volunteers who drive for church activities/purposes
i. All searches listed above in "a"
ii. Conduct a seven-year driving history search where available (some states are limited to three years)
c. Senior pastoral staff
i. All searches listed above in "a" and "b"
ii. Media search (looks through various Internet search engines for publications, articles, or documents with information pertaining to that individual)
iii. Employment credit report
iv. Civil search (to find if there are any civil filings against the individual)
When allowable, FBI fingerprint searches should also be considered as a component within the overall background check. It should be noted that this information is usually obtained through the specific state repository governed by specific state laws limiting or controlling access and making use of a CRA necessary. Because there are lag times and potential gaps from county and state criminal records and the FBI databases, it is advisable that these records be run in conjunction with the criminal history searches outlined above.