Not long ago, the convicted sex offender who tried to volunteer with a youth soccer club in New York this summer probably would have gotten right in. But the New York State West Youth Soccer Association found out that he was listed on a sex offender registry, and rejected him.
“Five years ago, we would not have caught this person,” said Sandy Ostebo, the association’s interim executive director.
That success story demonstrates how it’s easier and less expensive than ever for youth-serving organizations to run criminal background checks on current and prospective employees and volunteers, thanks to new deals from private companies and a new federal law that gives some nonprofits access to the gold standard of background checks: the FBI’s national criminal data base. Background checks remain clouded by incomplete data bases, a jumble of state laws that often limit nonprofit groups’ access to information, and the danger that groups will view a clean background check as proof that a prospective volunteer is suitable to work with youth. “This is a first line of defense,” says Stephen Salem, vice president for government relations at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, based in Atlanta. “But it’s not a panacea.”
Still, the latest developments mark a step forward. Here’s a sample of what’s available for youth-serving organizations (covering a mix of volunteers and employees), along with an explanation of the FBI’s pilot study:
• Rapsheets, based in Memphis, Tenn., provides background searches to nonprofit groups, including Little League and Pop Warner. Local leagues in both organizations have access to a special website that offers instant searches of a database of more than 140 million conviction records for $1.50 a name. Included are records from 44 states and Washington, D.C., along with sex offender registries from 32 states and Washington. The company’s regular website, www.rapsheets.com, provides information on pricing and descriptions of the databases available in each state, including the limits of the information and various search options for consumers and businesses.
• IntelliCorp., a Solon, Ohio, subsidiary of Insurance Services Office, offers members of the Stuart, Fla.-based National Council of Youth Sports a search of its records for $1.75 a name. For 30 states, this includes instant online access to criminal convictions (totaling 90 million records) as well as sex-offender conviction databases. Similar data from other states are generally available the same day.
• ChoicePoint, based outside of Atlanta, provides Internet-based background screening for youth-oriented organizations through
its VolunteerSelect initiative.
Clients of the service include the Boys & Girls Clubs, US Youth Soccer, YMCAs and churches. Choicepoint has been endorsed by the National Assembly of Health and Human Services Organizations, based in Washington, D.C. (This
is the service used by the New York State West Youth Soccer Association.)
Company spokeswoman Lauren Waits said Volunteer Select, which started in June 2002, screened 55,000 volunteers in its
first year and expects to screen half a million this year.
Its proprietary database contains 90 million felony criminal conviction records and a consolidated sex-offender list from 30 states. The cost is $2 to $9 per volunteer, with most states falling in the $2 to $4 range. ChoicePoint offers screening for employees through its ScreenNow service.
Benefits and Loopholes
Officials at the companies say they are interested in similar arrangements with other youth-oriented nonprofits. The cost usually depends in part on volume. Other companies that provide Internet-based background searches include Tempe, Ariz.-based BRB Publications; Proudfoot Direct, a unit of Chicago-based Aon Corp.; and Irvine, Calif.-based HireRight.
State laws governing access to criminal records vary widely, so these arrangements with private companies are providing access to records that was hard for some nonprofits to get on their own. The speed of Internet-based searches is particularly important for groups checking out volunteers, such as coaches or leaders of after-school programs and camps, who may serve only for a few weeks or months.
Among the drawbacks: all private data bases are limited. Chris Cruz, national sales manager for IntelliCorp., says: “Are there still going to be things that could be missed? Of course. We’ve taken a sieve and made the holes a lot smaller.”
Also, records and data searches are subject to typographical mistakes and other human error. The Rapsheets.com website warns users to check the spelling of names before starting to search. Cruz says the IntelliCorp. software helps guard against common errors such as transposed names or letters, and many companies check names against Social Security numbers before searching for convictions.
For nonprofits willing to navigate on their own, some states offer opportunities to do so at little or no cost. California will search state criminal fingerprint records at no charge for volunteers and employees of nonprofit organizations, although the nonprofits must pay to have the fingerprints taken, generally at a local police station.
The Nonprofit Risk Management Center in Washington, D.C., offers the Staff Screening Tool Kit, a publication that provides a state-by-state directory of what records are available, along with contact information and general guidelines for screening.
Many states provide free online access to registries listing the addresses of sex offenders. Little League requires that all volunteers be checked against state sex-offender registries and provides a link to the registries through a map on its website (accessible to anyone at www.littleleague.org). Access to the registries from 35 states is free, according to Little League, which says it has worked out free access for its volunteers in 43 states. In some states where this information is not available online, such as California, it can be obtained at local police stations or, for a fee, by phone.
However, these databases, known as Megan’s Law lists, have been plagued by problems, including outdated information and the failure of offenders to register after moving.
These are among the reasons that a clean background search is no guarantee that someone is suitable for youth work and is no substitute for proper training and supervision. But background checks may be as valuable for discouraging unacceptable people from applying.
John Patterson, senior program director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center and a former juvenile justice planner in New Mexico, says nonprofit organizations also need to carefully consider in advance how they will handle the information they get: “Is possession of marijuana 15 years ago when a person was in college relevant today?”
The FBI Experiment
Many lawmakers and lobbyists for nonprofit youth-serving groups hope that the future of background checks lies in the pilot study, which was set up under the federal PROTECT Act, signed in April. Under the study, the FBI is running fingerprint-based criminal background checks on volunteers whose names are submitted by the National Council of Youth Sports, the Boys & Girls Clubs and MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership.
The study, which began last month, is scheduled to run for 18 months, or until about 33,333 checks have been run for each group, whichever is sooner. Officials at the organizations said they hope for an extension if all the checks are used up in a few months.
The FBI will send the results of the fingerprint tests to the Alexandria,Va.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which will determine each individual’s fitness to volunteer, based on criteria developed with the three groups. A check will get a red light if the individual has been convicted of any felony or if he or she has been convicted of any lesser crime involving force or the threat or force, controlled substances, cruelty to animals, or sexual relations, including pornography.
Individuals with no such convictions get green lights. Yellow lights go to those who have been arrested for one of the listed crimes, but whose records do not show a conviction or other disposition of the case.
Bud Gaylord, director of the center’s case analysis and support division, estimates that it will take less than 48 hours to process the fingerprints and make a determination. The total turnaround time from taking fingerprints to returning results to the nonprofit group is supposed to be less than two weeks. The cost will be $18 for each volunteer, plus whatever it costs to have fingerprints taken locally.
The study is designed to test various approaches. Most volunteers will have their fingerprints taken on cards at local police stations or by the local agencies, and the cards will be sent to the FBI.
Fingerprint cards of National Mentoring Partnership volunteers will be mailed to the organization’s national headquarters in Alexandria, where they will be scanned into the organization’s system and sent electronically to the FBI. After the partnership has received the fitness determinations, it will post them on a password-protected section of its website that is accessible only to the volunteers’ local organizations.
Volunteers with the three groups that are based in Montana, Tennessee and Virginia will get more extensive (and costly) fingerprint-based checks that also include a search of the states’ criminal and sex offender data bases. Montana’s search includes records from six other states.
The pilot study will mark the first time that many of the volunteer organizations will have access to the FBI’s records, but even that database does not include all relevant records from all counties and states. The cost, while less than some organizations had been paying for less complete checks, may still be steep for some groups. “Studies have shown that anything over $10 would discourage people from getting checks and volunteering,” says Patterson of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center.
After the study, the U.S. Department of Justice is to submit a report to Congress with recommendations for improving the collection of background checks for volunteers in groups that work with children, the elderly or the disabled.
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