Thursday, October 02, 2008

Criminal Background Checks: Here's the thing

Does running criminal background checks on church volunteers who work with kids really make kids safer?

Here's the thing. Predators are slippery. Chances are, they will not call attention to themselves by doing something as obvious as volunteering to teach Sunday School or lead youth group.

Instead, they will befriend the families at the church. The will throw pool parties and barbecues at their house. They will join a small group along with their spouse. They'll join the buildings and grounds team and get a reputation as being able to fix anything. They'll help church members out when a lawn mower breaks or a dryer goes on the fritz or a sprinkler system implodes. The kids in the church will be used to seeing this person in and around their homes.

So when one of these predators overhears Mr. and Mrs. Smith fretting at small group about how are they going to get their kids to all their activities next week when Mr. Smith is out of town on business, he will readily offer to pick up 11-year-old Suzie Smith from band practice. After all, it's right on his way home from work, no trouble at all. And Mr. and Mrs. Smith will gratefully accept. And when he shows up at band practice half an hour early because, "he got the times mixed up" Suzie will leave with him anyway because how else is she going to get home? And when they get to her house and he suggests that he pop in for just a minute to check on that ceiling fan that her Dad says isn't working, well--it won't seem THAT odd that he come in when her parents aren't there because he has fixed stuff in her house before and the ceiling fan really isn't working. . . .

Where, in this chilling but too common scenario, does a criminal background check of volunteers help? In fact, it might hurt by lulling church families into thinking that all possible diligence is being exercised on their behalf and they can rest easy. The freak-out scary truth is that the biggest threat to kids is that predators will use the network of relationships they develop at church to facilitate access to kids at times and places where they are vulnerable--mostly NOT at church or during church sponsored events.

What might help would be empowering parents and kids to be aware,to recognize red flags, and trust their guts if they sense something "off". Then maybe Suzie might say, "Actually, I think it would be better if you check that fan when my parents are home."


Princess of Everything (and then some) said...

Okay my 2 cents. I knew a guy that was a registered sex offender. The school here had never ever run a criminal check. Then one year, they decided to. He was very active in the school and in the band because of his daughters. He got really upset about it. He had *done his time* and all should be forgiven. Problem was, even though he had done his time, he had to register for the rest of his life. Even though he had to register...he did not have any other rules to follow. He was a person that NO ONE would have suspected. He was a deacon in the Church. No one ever suspected because the offense was over 10 years old.

Trust me.....once a sex offender always a sex offender. People tend to think that they look or act a certain way and they don't. They look and act just like you and I do.

I think you can't afford to NOT do background checks.

Purechristianithink said...

And I would still suggest that running such checks is a very expensive way to identify only a small fraction of possible offenders. Is it still worth it? Maybe. My guess is that convicted offenders who arrive at a church with a background check policy in place will not volunteer for jobs where the check is a prerequisite, but will find other ways, such as the one described in the post, to find access to kids in the church.

My skepticism arises from three sources: One--a whole cottage industry of background check companies seems to have sprung up to address our concerns about kids' safety. There is money to be made on parental anxiety and church's liability concerns. Someone's making a lot of money on this: are we being taken for fools?
Two--here is where my deep cynicism comes in--There seems to be a general movement to make all of us innured to having our backgrounds checked, probed, and inspected by banks, police, credit companies, and various governmental agencies on a regular--all in the name of "security". Is this a good thing? I'd say no.
Three--in conversations with survivors of abuse their descriptions of what happened to them is usually not something that would have been prevented by a criminal background check.

Presbyterian Gal said...

While I appreciate Mindy's take and give it extra credence because she is a top notch law enforcement officer, I have such conflict about this.

This is church after all. Where Jesus's bidness is taught. Which is a place where people are to be known and practice and have faith.

That said, we still gotta protect our kids.

All that said,

~If a church is to do BG checks, ALL must have BG checks.
~Doing these, the church is relying on secular companies who do not give a rats' ass about practicing or having faith. The individual church is therefore, in a sense, abandoning its accountability for knowing its members and telling the members: "we don't really know you at all and aren't gonna take the time to get to know you, so we're going to use your money to check you out with the Po-lice". (It sounds simplified, but most emotional reactions really are)

Still we gotta protect our kids.

Not all offenders are registered. Not all offenders are even caught. I can tell you that from personal experience with myself and with my son in a tony private school.

THAT said, it seems the BG checks are an expensive cop out for a church to initiate safe haven practices such as:
~At least two teachers per Sunday School class or nursery
~Youth pastor floats among all the classes Sunday morning to spot check
~Like you said, PCIT, have some safety classes, like the Scouts do. John Walsh also has an EXCELLENT video called "Safe Side".

Stuff like that. Church still needs to be church. Even with BG checks, you just aren't going to get everybody; the upright folks will stop volunteering; and it will end up costing $$$$ much better used elsewhere.

Teri said...

I agree that we won't catch risky people with a background check, for all the reasons you and other commenters have mentioned. And I agree that it could lead to a false sense of security for parents or kids--though I sometimes think church leads kids there anyway (priests anyone?).

Having said that, we first implemented the "easy" stuff--two adults, windows/open doors, no one-on-ones, loads of release forms, etc. And now we're moving on to implementing the background checks for people who will work with our kids/youth outside Sunday morning--aka will go on retreats and stay at lock-ins and be here with them for afternoon/evening youth group meetings. (Also there's no way we have the volunteers or the $$ to have two adults in every car (because that would mean more than double the adults to make up for loss of drivers and loss of seat space), which is considerable compared to the cost of a background check.)

But we're under no illusions as the leadership of the church that we're keeping our kids safe by checking the sex offender registry or running background checks: what we're doing is showing due diligence in case something happens in one of those other settings. It's a hard thing, to think we need to do that in church, but the news suggests that predators target institutions that appear vulnerable. So maybe, indirectly, we help keep our kids mildly safe, but in reality we all know that security and safety are illusions.

SpookyRach said...

...another 2 cents:

The background checks are often not accurate. For any number of reasons.

I think your last paragraph is the key. We MUST learn to listen to those instincts. God gave 'em to us for a reason.

Anonymous said...

I think some of it comes down to liability as well.

fauge said...

We have to use every tool available to protect our children, if even one of these monsters is found out it makes the checks worthwhile.