A Cautionary Tale about Background Checks

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Many youth agencies believe that hiring ex-offenders to work with youth can be valuable in some circumstances, as long as managers take precautions to minimize the risk to kids. For all those agencies that think they're taking the best precautions, consider this:

A convicted murderer and professional mentor was arrested this month for allegedly sexually abusing a teenage girl whom he met through a youth anti-violence organization that he worked for in Washington, D.C.

The nonprofit group, Peaceoholics, knew the man had a conviction record - for cocaine possession. Peaceoholics' background check did not go back far enough to discover a murder conviction in the 1980s, said Ronald Moten, the agency's co-founder.

What's more, the man had been referred by a city government program, called Project Empowerment, that finds jobs for ex-offenders - presumably informing the employers about all of the employee's offenses.

"He came highly recommended from the [city] Department of Employment Services," Moten said. "We hired him based on the pretenses that all he had was a drug charge."

Peaceholics did its own background check, as it does for all prospective employees (it has 70 full- and part-time staffers), but Moten said "the background checks only go back 10 years."

The man, Barry Harrison, 50, had been serving for about three weeks as a mentor at a city high school. The city paid his salary.

 Police charged him with sexual assault for allegedly kissing and fondling the 15-year-old student in the basement of the school. The charging documents also said that Harrison had talked with other students about having sex with girls, and told one that he would "kidnap" her and "have fun like sex," according to The Washington Post.

"We might still have hired him if we knew about the murder charge," Moten said. "But we wouldn't have put him in the school."

Peaceoholics has hired  more than a dozen ex-offenders through Project Empowerment, Moten said. He described the agency's work as often requiring a level of toughness and street savvy that is hard to find: "We deal with situations where nobody else will go. We go in the community where guys will go shoot each other."

The agency's services include peer and family mediation, job placement assistance, and "gang and neighborhood intervention," according to its website. Its funders include the city government.

After the incident, Peaceoholics won an agreement to have more thorough FBI background checks done on perspective employees within about a week, Moten said; he would not say how that was arranged. Previously, the city's police department had conducted the checks, he said.

The agency had used FBI background checks in the past, Moten said, but they took "six to nine months."