Q&A: Screening Volunteers for Visitation Ministries

Do we need to do background checks on adults who will be visiting shut-ins?

At a recent ministry seminar, it was recommended that a criminal background check be performed on adult volunteers who visit other adults in homes, hospitals and convalescent homes. Our church screens all employees and volunteers who work with children. Are we required to do the same for adults who are engaged in a visitation ministry that’s directed toward other adults?

There are two things you should consider when determining who you should screen:

What’s required?

First, you’ll want to look at any applicable law in your state that requires worker screening. By examining such laws, you can determine the specific situations in which worker screening is required. For a simple ministry visitation program, in which non-professional volunteers or employees go to hospitals and nursing homes to call on sick and needy adults, it’s unlikely that any criminal background check of such workers is legally required.

Virtually all states require background screening for workers in certain programs and ministries (such as fee-based child care operations). There are also certain situations, such when health care or mental health professionals work with disabled adults, in which state law may trigger the need for a criminal background check. Absent child care activity or the rendering of professional care to disabled adults, however, state laws are unlikely to require a background screening check for workers.

Another related issue worth mentioning is state licensing requirements. Most states have licensing procedures for certain professions, including those that involve professional care-giving activity. So a church that runs a program like an elder day care or similar ministry may be subject to state licensing requirements. To be certain that all bases have been covered, you’ll want to check with a local attorney to determine the scope of worker screening requirements and licensing laws in your state.

What’s wise?

Second, although perhaps not required by state law, it may still be prudent to perform criminal background checks on workers involved in your visitation ministry. Such screening can help eliminate workers who have a background which isn’t conducive for such ministry, and this also demonstrates that your ministry has taken reasonable care to safeguard those whom you are serving.

Keep in mind that not all volunteers require the same level of scrutiny. Those volunteers who have frequent contact with children, the elderly, or people with disabilities should be held to a higher standard. It’s clear that the elderly and disabled adults can constitute a vulnerable population. If a ministry organizes a program in which volunteers interact with an elderly or disabled population and one of the volunteers engages in misconduct (whether physical, emotional or sexual abuse), the ministry may well be held liable for these acts.

So, though it may not be required, your ministry will still likely benefit from running criminal background checks on workers who frequently interact with the elderly or the disabled. If your ministry doesn’t have a policy in place targeted toward the protection of elderly and disabled individuals, you may want to consider developing one. Though the details of an abuse prevention program targeted to protecting the elderly might differ somewhat than one targeted at children, the screening procedures for the two would be very similar.

Finally, if the visitation ministry involves driving ministry-owned vehicles, or involves driving people to doctor appointments, the local grocery store, etc., you should strongly consider reviewing the driving records of your visitation workers before authorizing them to get behind the wheel.

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