Youth Services Law

Child Protection Policies: Background Checks

Criminal background checks

One thing that you must do in your program is criminal record and background checks of the adults working in your program. The specific details, however, can vary based on the needs of your program.

Criminal Records Checks

First, require criminal background checks for anyone working directly with children. The background checks rarely turn up anything, but they operate on the same principle as immunizations—if we omit them, then predators will start applying to our organizations.

You should conduct a check in all of the states that you know the person has lived as an adult. Federal checks are available, but expensive. Conduct whatever checks your budget allows. Also, consider either passing along the cost to the employee/volunteer or requiring them to bring a report from other states. Consult with your attorney about whether your state allows these options.

Some states prohibit criminal records checks before you make an offer of employment, but even those “ban the box” states usually allow checks of people applying to work with children. Again, check with your attorney about the laws in your state.

Remember to check the child abuse registry in relevant states. What you can access varies from state to state. Georgia, for example, allows only “licensed entities” to run employment queries. Thus, child care centers can access the registry, but churches or camps cannot. My recommendation is that you have employees and volunteers submit a request for their information to the registry (all states allow a self-check) and bring the resulting report to you.

Whom to Check

You do not need criminal records checks for every adult in your organization, only for those who work directly with children. An administrative person who doesn’t interact with children, for example, would need less scrutiny than a child care teacher. Similarly, you would not need to screen special speakers at a camp, as long as you never allow them unsupervised access to children.

One common question I hear is how to handle adults who are not a part of your program, but attend with their children. Sports groups, for example, cannot afford a background check for every parent of every child who plays in the league. Similarly, camps that have Family Days cannot possibly keep up with every parent, step-parent, adult sibling, grandparent, uncle, aunt, cousin or other adult relative of its campers.

The simple answer to these questions is that parents are not your agents, and you have little obligation to investigate them. You can meet any obligation that you might have (particularly a moral responsibility to keep kids safe) by more efficient policies of supervision. For example, you already know to have staff members stationed at high-risk places such as the pool or climbing wall. Think of secluded places as having the same risk, and have staff members routinely check those thoroughly. Do all you can to prevent adults having unsupervised access to children.

You also don’t need to take responsibility away from parents. If they are present, it is their responsibility to supervise their children. Consult with your attorney, and be sure that your parent agreements make clear that they are accepting that responsibility whenever they are present.

If you learn that one of your parents has a criminal record that poses a risk to children, then you do have a responsibility to protect the children in your care. Be sure that your supervision policies limit their access to other people’s children. Consider what the other parents need to know in order to avoid vulnerable situations, such as sleepovers at the offender’s house. If possible, get an agreement from the parent such as those that some churches use for sex offenders.

Reference Checks

Finally, check all of the applicant’s references. How many references you need may vary from state to state, but try to get at least three. When talking to former employers, watch for gaps that may indicate the applicant is trying to hide a bad reference.

When possible, get personal references as well as professional. Former employers often all give you only limited information, but volunteer and community groups may be more forthcoming. Personal references will be particularly important for younger people who do not have an extensive work history.

Take the time to get verbal references rather than just letters. You generally can get much more information from conversations. If the reference is willing to give you more than dates and eligibility for rehire, then ask questions related to their interactions with young people. (The CDC has some good sample questions).

These background checks may be your last opportunity to avoid serious future problems. Use all of your resources to be as certain as you can that you are getting a good employee or volunteer.

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