The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that a mother whose 10-year-old daughter was sexually molested by a church employee could sue a church and its pastor. The mother alleged that when the employee was hired, the church and minister either knew or should have known that he had recently been convicted of aggravated sexual assault on a young girl, that he was on probation for the offense, and that a condition of his probation was that he not be involved or associated with children. Yet the individual was hired and entrusted with duties that encouraged him to come freely into contact with children. The court ruled that the church could be sued on the basis of negligent selection.
One of the most significant legal risks facing churches today is negligent selection—carelessness or a failure to exercise reasonable care in the selection of a worker. But church leaders can take two relatively simple steps to significantly reduce this risk. The first step is to collect vital information from prospective workers in the application process. The second step involves background checks.
Michael McCarty, president of Danville, Indiana-based Safe Hiring Solutions, LLC, and a former violent crime detective, says church leaders should develop a screening and background check program that provides equal treatment for everyone so there is not even the perception of discrimination.
"This doesn't mean that all positions should receive the same type of screening," he says. For example, a credit report check could be required for a person being considered for an administrative or financial position. Likewise, a motor vehicle record check makes sense for a volunteer who is required to drive.
"Failing to thoroughly screen staff and volunteers increases the potential liability a church may face if allegations surface about abuse, theft, negligence, or other issues," says Ansley Jones Colby of ChoicePoint Cares, a background search provider based in Alpharetta, Georgia.
ChoicePoint recently conducted an audit of background screenings for churches and nonprofits from 2002 through 2007. This study found a "hit rate" of 5.06 percent, meaning more than five of every one-hundred volunteer or employment applicants screened had some criminal activity in their past.
Just as not all screening techniques are the same, not all background search providers supply the same services. Background screenings vary in price. A package can typically begin at about $20, which should verify the social security number, confirm address history, uncover previous names, and search the National Criminal Database, National Sex Offender list, and county criminal records, says McCarty.
Screening costs can extend to as much as $90 to include searches of employment credit reports, employment verifications, motor vehicle records, reference verifications, and Federal criminal record and county criminal record searches in prior as well as current counties of both residence and employment.
Searches marketed to churches at very low costs, such as $10, can provide a false sense of security, says McCarty. These databases may be very limited. "Many states would only provide a criminal record if the person was incarcerated in their state prison system," he says. A large number of felony crime convictions do not end up with the person going to prison. This includes crimes such as felony family violence, which could include child abuse; felony theft; and even some sex-related crimes like child solicitation. These can be plea-bargained to a felony conviction with no prison sentence or no requirement to register as a sex offender.
Background screening services vary in their definition of a comprehensive search. "In marketing materials they all look the same," says McCarty. "But in reality the top database provider has as many as 475 sources of data and the least comprehensive has fewer than 150 sources of information. Depending on how search parameters are configured, data from several states could be voided or return clear results."
Screening firms can also differ in how they handle county criminal databases. As a whole, the background screening industry searches county records for the previous seven years, says McCarty. The search can be expanded to 10 years, but it will add costs to the search.
Tracy Seabrook, executive director of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners based in Morrisville, North Carolina, explains that the Fair Credit Reporting Act limits the type of information that can be used for hiring decisions. "Background screening companies have to be aware of state laws as well," she says. "In some states, you can report an arrest even if there wasn't a conviction."
Seabrook says it's important to know the geographical area you want to research before looking for a background screening service. Find out if the service you select will provide legwork to verify any findings that arise on an employee at the information's source.
You don't have to select a background search provider in the state where your church is located, says Seabrook. When comparing services, be sure that you are comparing "apples to apples" by comparing the exact same searches and services with each company you are considering.
You need to know what steps the provider will take if a match is found. "They may wrongly attribute criminal activity to someone who is not a criminal," says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, noting that an innocent person can be falsely accused. Stephens says you should not rely on a quick, online record search. The provider needs to be able to provide the legwork needed to confirm or verify identity.
Finally, a reputable background services provider should be able to provide references. Learn what a company's customers say about its services. Experience, like the information detailed on a background search, can be priceless.
What to Ask
Knowing the right questions to ask a background search provider is a key step in protecting your church community when hiring new employees. Ansley Jones Colby of ChoicePoint Cares recommends that you get solid answers to these questions before making a choice:
1. What sources of information are searched? Comprehensive data searches could include the following:
- Instant nationwide criminal checks
- Sex-offender registries for all 50 states
- County courthouse searches
- Social security number verification
- Motor vehicle reports
- Credit reports
- License verification
- Education verification
- Employment verification
- Reference checks
2. How often are these sources updated?
3. How far back do the county searches go? Do you charge more for a search that goes back farther than seven years? Are the county searches conducted physically at the county courthouse or through an electronic database?
4. Is the service easy-to-use, including a user-friendly, web-based system for easy access to reports?
5. Is the service flexible, allowing me to select from an array of a-la-carte products or choose a package?
6. Does the service offer reliable support by telephone, e-mail, and through online and printed educational materials?
7. Does the provider comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act?
8. What is the turnaround time? Background screening providers should be able to offer instant reports. Manual reports (when required) should be returned within three to five business days.
9. What security systems are in place to protect the sensitive personal data that is reported?
10. How do you handle additional names or aliases? Is there an additional charge for researching that information?
11. Do you provide discounts or affordable rates for church clients?
Tara Beecham is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania.