Q&A: How Long Should We Keep Volunteer Applications and Background Check Documents?

The simple answer is the longer, the better.

We are in the process of conducting background checks on our workers in children’s ministry. We have worked hard to provide a safe and secure ministry for our children and follow the guidelines put forth in Reducing the Risk. We currently have applications on file for children’s ministry volunteers for the last 20 years. How long do we need to keep these records on file?

It is important to recognize that state statutes of limitations for personal injury claims, which prescribe the deadline for filing a lawsuit, do not begin to run until a minor is 18 years of age.

And many courts have ruled that the limitations period does not begin to run until a victim “discovers” that his or her injury was caused by the prior abuse. This so-called discovery rule can extend the period for filing a lawsuit by a minor victim for decades.
Imagine your church being sued 30 or 40 years from now for an alleged act of child molestation by a church volunteer that occurred this year.
If you do not screen volunteers, the issue of records retention is irrelevant. But if you do, and your volunteer files contain a written application, reference checks (preferably “institutional” references from other churches or institutions where the individual worked with minors), and the results of criminal records checks, then this will likely be the only evidence that the church will have to defend itself.
By disposing of these vital records, you may be depriving the church of a means of defending itself against a claim that occurred so long ago that no one can testify as to what precautions, if any, the church followed.
As a result, it is important for churches to retain these records for a long time. Since it is impossible to know in advance how the courts in a particular jurisdiction will apply the discovery rule, if at all, a specific number of years to retain volunteer applications and related materials cannot be prescribed.
The simple answer is, the longer the better. Given the importance of these records in defending a church against a claim of negligent selection, they should never be destroyed without the advice of an attorney based on an evaluation of applicable state law.
Thankfully, with today’s technology, records can be scanned and saved online, so churches no longer have to worry about where to physically store paper copies of all these records.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

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