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Background Checks Are Not Enough

Background Checks Are Not Enough

It’s every organization’s worst nightmare: One of its volunteers becomes the subject of an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct involving a child. You’d like to think it could never happen to you. But, you never know when a predator could become part of your organization, which is why both background checks and an intensive screening process are so important for volunteers who work with children.

According to David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, less than 10 percent of sexual offenders are ever criminally prosecuted. This means that more than 90 percent of criminal offenders have no criminal record to check. So, while you should certainly perform background checks for all volunteers, you need to take other steps to protect children, as well.

Step 1: Application

While the volunteer application is an important means of gaining vital information about the potential volunteer, remember to make it warm and welcoming. In addition to questions about the applicant’s volunteer and work experience, you should also consider questions like whether the applicant has preferences for the age or gender of youth with whom the person will work, and if so, why. While potentially uncomfortable, you should be straightforward in asking whether the applicant has ever abused or been accused of abusing a child and even whether the applicant considers him/herself to have been physically or sexually abused. The application is a chance to discover any red flags that should be further investigated.

Step 2: References

Ask each volunteer to list two or three references on the application. Before you call the references, prepare a list of questions, such as how long the reference has known the applicant and what their defining characteristics are. Your purpose is to gain information that gives insight into the applicant’s psychological and emotional well-being. Another useful tactic is to get an additional reference from those references. The “friend of a friend” may be more willing to be candid about the volunteer.

Step 3: Interview

The interview is perhaps the single best way for you to learn about your potential volunteer and what kind of person they are. Ask questions that will help you understand why that person wants to volunteer, and what their defining traits are. For example, a volunteer who will be working with high-risk youth will need to exhibit a great deal of patience.  Use the interview to dig deeper into responses from the application that show any areas of high risk.

Step 4: Background check

The extent of your background check largely depends on the kind of work your volunteer will be performing. Keep in mind some states have mandatory requirements for those volunteering with children. At minimum, you will need to check for a criminal history. That usually includes an FBI fingerprint check, a search of the state criminal registry and state sex offender registry, and a search of the state child abuse and neglect registry. Beyond criminal history, organizations may want to search:

  • Drug and alcohol test results
  • Department of Motor Vehicles history
  • Social media posts
  • Civil court history
  • Employment history
  • Immigration records

Step 5: Onboarding

Once you have accepted an applicant as a volunteer, you must ensure they fully understand policies and procedures. Even those who are most qualified for their position can make major mistakes if they don’t know what’s expected of them. Establish a standard protocol for training volunteers, including sexual abuse awareness training. Be sure all volunteers revisit their training annually, at a minimum.

This may seem like a lot of steps for filling a volunteer position, but the extra work is worth it in the end. Your primary goal is to keep children safe, and a comprehensive screening program that is tailored to your organization’s unique needs is the best way to achieve that goal.



The information contained in these materials is intended solely to provide general guidance on topics that may be of interest to you. While we have made reasonable efforts to present accurate and reliable information, Church Mutual Insurance Company, S.I. disclaims all liability for any errors or omissions, or for any actions you take or fail to take based on these materials. The information provided may not apply to your particular facts or circumstances; therefore, you should seek professional advice prior to relying on any information that may be found in these materials.