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Volunteer Background Checks

by Brad Snellings

Background checks alone cannot eliminate the risk of liability and child abuse; we live in a world full of risk. However, a screening program can reduce the chances of ministry and volunteer liability to an acceptable level, when part of a total risk management program, and help reduce the chances of child abuse. This article focuses on how to utilize screening programs and implement background check techniques related to screening volunteers.

It may help you understand what a screening program can do for you by examining a specific situation with a volunteer accused of child sexual abuse:

One of your volunteers is accused of sexual misconduct and has been arrested and charged with child sexual abuse. Now several parents are threatening to sue you and the organization. Are you liable?

With a risk management and screening program in place – no problem. You have several “layers” of protection. Here’s how and why.

Because your organization instituted a program of reasonable screening for children’s ministry volunteers, which included a requirement that they complete forms providing information about their background and experience and consent for a criminal background check and you conduct background checks on volunteers working with children, your directors and leaders are not likely to be personally liable for negligently selecting the volunteer, who lied on his application. However, your organization may still be exposed to vicarious liability for the volunteer’s sexual misconduct.

In addition, your program had an ongoing system for training volunteers on child abuse prevention, and reviewed and evaluated volunteers, including a background check every two years.

Finally, since you knew there was a risk of this kind of claim, you made certain that your liability insurance included coverage for this kind of risk. You purchased an endorsement to the standard general liability policy for this specific kind of claim.

Without risk management and a screening program in place – bad news. You never imagined it could happen in your ministry. Because it is so difficult to find reliable volunteers, you accept everyone who signs up, with no questions asked. Because you took no preventative measures and because some people now are saying that unmistakable signs of the coach’s misconduct were overlooked or ignored, your directors and leaders are exposed to personal liability and gross negligence. Worse, you are dismayed that the organization’s liability insurance explicitly excluded coverage for that kind of claim.

If risk management principles, including the core elements pertaining to a screening program: 1) policies and procedures, 2) education and training 3) and background checks, are applied in your ministry your parents, members and everyone should be made aware of these elements. Your organization should develop your own policies and procedures and decide how to best apply them to your ministry, e.g. the two-person-rule, the six-month-rule. Determine if screening will be mandatory for everyone working with children, no matter how long they’ve been in your church. Every church and ministry is different, so consult with your attorney and utilize the resources available to you as you develop your policies and procedures. Protect My Ministry provides sample policies and complete starter-kits to help ministries get started toward customizing their own policies and procedures.

Education and training for volunteers on child abuse is essential and just as important as background checks to the screening process. Protect My Ministry offers a full DVD and workbook training program to help you implement the training necessary to protect your ministry. In your child protection policy you should outline your volunteer positions with job descriptions, and which positions require background checks and what types of background checks will be conducted.

The volunteer should be required to fill out the ministry application and background check consent forms and review the position descriptions. Once your volunteers fill out the forms you need to be careful to store their forms in a secure, protected place, along with a background check report. The process of collecting forms from volunteers can be time consuming and a labor intensive process. To help streamline this process Protect My Ministry has developed a fully web-based ministry application system that you can use for the online collection and storage of applications, background check consent forms, and background check reports – called Ministry Mobilizer.

If your organization provides day care and child care services, or performs other services that bring its employees and volunteers into regular contact with minors, you may be subject to state or federal mandatory screening procedures. Check with your local law makers to determine if your day care facility meets their requirements for mandatory screening. Registered day care facilities and programs that receive federal funds are often required to run criminal background checks on employees and volunteers.

If your organization is not required by law to conduct criminal background checks you should still conduct background checks on volunteers just like you would for an employee. A volunteer is a worker serving the organization and the organization should put substantially the same amount of work into locating qualified volunteers and placing volunteers according to their skills, talents and gifts. Volunteers frequently have a highly public role on behalf of the ministry; they are the persons that parents and individuals dealing with your ministry will see first and most often. Whenever possible, use position descriptions for volunteers, analogous to job descriptions for employees.

It may help to define the types of background check services available. The following services are most common to ministries:

National Criminal Database Search – there are various vendors for this service that are all similar in their scope. The data is sourced from various state and local court records. This search is primarily used to screen for convicted felons, and those who have served time in a prison for more than one year. This database search is more effective in some states than others. Some states provide very little data, while other states include all felony and misdemeanor data for arrests and convictions. Protect My Ministry offers an online-consultation, which keeps you up to date on the changes in the national database, and helps you determine if this search is sufficient for your state.

National Sex Offender Registry Search – all 50 states sex offender registries are searched at one time. Some states require special search techniques that you should be aware of, including the need to search by first and last name, while omitting the date of birth from the search technique. This is necessary in 13 states, as of the date of this article. Protect My Ministry automatically adjusts their search techniques by state, so that you get a true 50-state sex offender search.

County Court Search – a search of the local county will reveal all arrests and convictions for felony and misdemeanor level crimes. This search is especially important in states where the National Criminal Database Search is not thorough enough.

Statewide Search – a search of the state police records will reveal all arrests and convictions for felony and misdemeanor level crimes. This search is especially important in states where the National Criminal Database Search is not thorough enough. Mandatory statewide fees can be expensive; in those cases Protect My Ministry may recommend a county search instead.

Social Security Verification – the Social Security Number (SSN) of an applicant is verified through the social security records for validity, date issued, and the name and date of birth attached to the SSN.

Address History Trace – the address’s attached to a persons’ credit header including the dates lived.

Motor Vehicle Records Search – a state search using the driver’s license number will reveal any traffic infractions and violations. This search is typically used for drivers of church vehicles, or volunteers responsible for driving children.

Credit History Report – an up-to-date snapshot of one’s personal credit history will reveal the financial accounts, balances and any liens, holds or judgments against the individual.

A combination of these services will fit most positions in your ministry, including the National Criminal Database Search, National Sex Offender Registry Search, Social Security Verification and Address History Trace. The price for these services can range from $10 to $25. An online consultation with criminal background check recommendations is available on the Protect My Ministry website (www.protectmyministry.com).

You have been presented with a potential lawsuit situation involving the sexual misconduct of a volunteer. Let’s examine another area of risk that you should consider running background checks for – the auto accident.

Your volunteer offers to drive a group of children to summer camp. The volunteer is involved in an accident and some of your children are injured. Are you liable for their injuries? If your organizations insurance covers the volunteer’s personal vehicle and the passengers, you know your insurance will cover you. However, what if the volunteer has a driving record and is at fault in the incident and a motor vehicle search would have revealed their prior history and could have prevented the incident. Your organization could be sued for gross negligence if you failed to perform due diligence by performing a motor vehicle records search on the volunteer.

The screening program for your ministry will impact the success of your ministry. For some parents it’s imperative that your children’s ministry take precautions to insure the safety of their children, beyond the standards of facility safety. The media has exploded over the past several years with stories of abuse, many of which are in the church. A screening program is no longer an option, but a requirement for effective ministry.

About Protect My Ministry:

Protect My Ministry is an employment and volunteer background screening company established to assist faith-based organizations in implementing and maintaining a thorough background screening process.

Protect My Ministry has spent more than a decade in the background screening industry. Our core principles are to adhere strictly to industry best practices, secure technology and compliance requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Protect My Ministry is one of the only background check companies that has implemented the standards required for employment screening and applied them to the volunteer screening marketplace, through their proprietary process of national database re-verification.

Protect My Ministry serves thousands of ministries and has partnerships with several national organizations including the Compassion International, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, International Mission Board, Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod, Servant Keeper, Shelby Systems and thousands of churches.

Brad Snellings is the co-founder of Protect My Ministry. He is married to Lauren Snellings and they have 3 children (Elizabeth, Emma Jane, and John). They attend Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, FL.

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