Thursday, October 02, 2008

Criminal Background Checks

Does your church do criminal background checks on all volunteers? All volunteers who might work with children or youth?

Several years before I arrived here, our C.E. Committee passed a policy requiring this. It did not happen. In fact, neither I nor my colleague were aware that there was a policy like this until someone who had been on the committee back in the day asked why we weren't doing it anymore. As far as we can tell, we never actually did this. It did not move from policy to implementation.

There has been a fair amount of turn-over in pastoral and lay staff in those years, so part of what happened was probably that the ball was dropped early on in terms of who was actually going to make the recommendations in the policy happen in real life. However, based on my experience with other churches, I'm betting some other things happened too.

1. The policy was passed without anyone doing the math on how much it would actually cost to run a $75 background check on several dozen volunteers each year. Once the realization dawned, implementation bogged down on the question of "who pays for this?"

2. The background check rule proved unsustainable in the midst of the chaos of congregational life. When it's one week before VBS and you are still scrambling to fill all the volunteer spots, the idea that you have to wait thirty days before that new volunteer's paperwork could possibly go through causes you to cut corners rather than cancel an event that has been publicized city-wide for a month.

I'm just not convinced that running background checks is the best way to make the church safer. The check we run on employees tells you only if a person has been convicted of a crime in this state. Okay. But what about other states? What about arrests that did not result in convictions? What about convictions that had nothing to do with child abuse? Is a thirty year old marijuana possession a deal-breaker? So far the only "conviction" that a background check has uncovered at a church I've served was for welfare fraud. The individual had, as a young single mom, failed to navigate the welfare bureacracy succesfully, filled out her paperwork improperly and for a few months received more benefits than she was entitled to. Do we cross her off our list of potential Sunday school teachers forever and ever?

I'm not suggesting that churches do nothing in this regard. But I wonder if implementing safe practices such as open doors, rooms and offices with windows, raising awareness among volunteers and parents and the kids themselves would do as much, if not more, than relying on expensive and potentially intrusive background checks.

What has been your experience with this?


Presbyterian Gal said...

Ah.....don't get me started. I'm thinking about a blog post about this.

cheesehead said...

When I came to St Stoic, there had never been a Personnel Committee (well, not at least in the last 20 years). Somebody new-ish came on board who was an HR professional and got the ball rolling, and a policy in place. Plus since she did these kinds of things for living, she knew how to expedite a reasonable, reasonably inexpensive background check. Terrific, right?

Then it became apparent that we would have to run these checks on people we already knew if we were going to be across the board on this issue, and nobody wanted to have to run the SS# of their bridge partner or drinking buddy.

And so it has been quietly dropped.

ymp said...

My Church is supposed to. I'm not in a position to know how well this is actually happening. I do know that this is the result of years of diocesan level discussion which was itself a result of some great unpleasantness. We do manage to do background checks for a little less than you seem to find--probably only because of where we are.

Shalom said...

Our insurance company has mandated a "Safe Haven" policy which includes background checks on every person working with children, and that they do a brief training on working safely with children. Frankly, this policy is a huge pain in the ass, and it's a ton of work for the staff person (not me!) who manages it. But we've trained over 200 people and yes, we do background checks every year. We have to be flexible in how we enforce things like "oh, crap, we need five more VBS volunteers right now," but for the most part, people are coming to expect that they will need to do a few things before volunteering with kids.

As for what we would do if we found a problem: there is a Safe Haven team, including the staff member who manages the policy, a lay person, and the senior pastor. That team decides how to handle individual cases. They also serve as a place for people to report any suspicious behavior (thankfully, haven't had that yet).

Ah, the joys of a big church. And insurance companies.

Teri said...

we are in the process of moving from policy to implementation, but we are background checking only people who work with children/youth outside of Sunday morning or VBS (the assumption being that so many people are around during those times, and often parents are on-site, plus the open-door etc rules, that those are relatively low-risk times). We also said that a person only needs to be checked once unless they leave and return--because if someone were to do something that would result in a change to the info in a background check, we'd likely know about it already (since we live in a state where background checks only tell us about convictions).

We do have a team in place to handle all of this--and the pastor(s) are not part of it. We only come into play if the team isn't sure whether something is a dealbreaker or not.

And yes, much of the movement on this has been because of our insurance company. We've had the policy in place for over a year (don't get me started on how difficult THAT was) and are just now getting around to this particular provision. Windows were added to all the doors within a week, but background checks are a whole different story....

Anonymous said...

We have a policy that required background checks that was never implemented. We follow the rules of 2 adults pr classroom, open doors at all times, not kids allowed to ride with church staff unless there are 2 adults present (so the YG Director and i can ride together and take kids, but neither shoe or I can be alone with kids in the car). For us is is $80 a person and honestly, we can't afford it. I pass the policy out to the CE committe and session every year and no one wants to force the issue.

Anonymous said...

I get background checked about 4 times a year. Drives me nuts. my fingerprints are all over the country (each charity requires its own!)And no matter what I do, I can't keep track of who needs what paperwork when!

Here's my take--like Teri, I think if you're in a group setting--Sunday School, VBS, it's not necessary--especially if you have a policy that nobody takes one child out of the room by him/her self. Even at our 100% background checked camp, we have a 3's company rule---two kids and one adult or two adults and one kid--never, ever one alone.

I would check anyone working with the youth group, especially anyone who spends the night with kids ever--retreats, etc.

For the girl scouts, we only get checked every 36 months unless we have moved out of the county during that time, even temporarily (so college kids get re-checked, but people like me, no). That seems like a reasonable policy. I also wonder if you can't allow those that have been checked elsewhere (teachers, girl scout volunteers, etc.) to submit proof from that entity to save money. (To cover last minute volunteers at one camp, you can get a notarized letter from another place where you've been checked stating that a clean check occurred on xyz date....that camp will allow a "secondhand check" for 3 months)

A church where I supplied for a while had a special offering for "safe church"--every baptism Sunday. Sort of makes sense--we make a lot of promises that Sunday, and part of teaching our children is providing them with a safe environment.

Stushie said...

Do it without reservations. Your church would not survive an actual sexual abuse case either financially or numerically.

Juniper said...

Our insurance company negotiated a deal with a background checker company, so we get ours for $10/apiece. I have done them on the staff, but not the volunteers.

Not sure if we're getting that great a deal, btw, since one person came up "flagged" and when I read it closer, I realized the flaggin was for a guy with a totally different birthday and middle name. When I called the company to complain they were very nonchalant about it - "Oh, yeah, that happens all the time..." So I wonder how accurate they are anyway....

I agree with the comment that it doesnt really help but that it's a cya in case of a law suit or something.

Norma said...

Our church has one, and although I haven't looked at it recently, at the time I thought it was so Draconian and required submission of SS#, driver's license number, birth date, and various other things without any protection for our privacy or identity theft protection, and who knows what the staff of the companies who do this will do with it. I objected; so I don't volunteer. However, if you do it for volunteers, you definitely need to do it for staff. We are may be on the website. So what will you do when you find out the choir director has a DUI or the wife of the treasurer called the police on him 3 years ago, because that's what will be dug up. The state has a model (Ohio) policy, but our church goes way beyond what is recommended.