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Protecting Your Church with Background Screening
By: Sandra Brewer

We can all remember the days when you walked into a church and everyone knew each other and would greet each other by name. The service would start with the same familiar songs and the children would go off to Sunday School classes without a second thought. A handshake and a name was all that people needed to trust the person sitting next to them and everyone was who they said they were. It is a great thing to reminisce about simpler times but a costly way to operate in today’s church world. Believe it or not, there are people who wish to take advantage of churches and their people.

In today’s church, ignorance is not so bliss. Churches need to be educated and have information to establish how to overcome ignorance when it comes to protecting their people.

Unfortunately, we no longer live in the day and age where we can simply take people at their word, but many churches still operate under this “good faith.” Our society has become more transient than ever, and it seems like new people are walking through the doors of our churches every day. Although we always are thankful for new guests, we cannot always take them at their word. Churches now have the moral and legal obligation to know who is walking through their doors.

We need to begin the discussion about “avoiding ignorance” with some legal definitions. Negligence is defined as the failure to act with the prudence that a reasonable person would exercise under the same circumstances. In terms of negligent hiring, an employer is liable for harmful acts committed by its employees or volunteers, if the employer knew or should have known of the employee's/volunteer’s predisposition for such behavior. The tort of negligent hiring imposes liability on an employer for acts of its employees/volunteers, which may be beyond the scope of their employment and are criminal in nature.

To protect your church, an institution must establish due diligence. Due diligence is defined as the process of checking the accuracy of information provided by an applicant and is at the level of judgment, care, prudence, determination, and activity that a person would reasonably be expected to do under particular circumstances. Employers must establish that they did everything reasonably expected for a background investigation prior to hiring a candidate employee. That is a lot of “legal speak,” but what it means, in a nutshell, is that in order to protect a church from lawsuits involving volunteers and employees, a church needs to do proper investigations prior to putting them in contact with church members.

What is the difference between a protective background investigation and a simple screening that might put your church at risk? How can you protect your church and congregation? More than this, how can you protect the most vulnerable members of your church and preserve your integrity and character as Christ’s representatives in today’s world?

Some criminal database searches offered by employment screening companies or church volunteer checks can be liability waiting to happen. They specialize in giving limited information readily available but are not true employee/volunteer background investigations. 

The value of a $9 background check shrinks in comparison to hundreds of thousands of dollars, countless victims, and scarred reputation for the church and the name of Christ.

Records that appear on an instant “National Criminal Check” are usually purchased from the originating government source, reformatted, and resold to the end user. Databases are proprietary property of the reseller because they are no longer under the control of the originating public agency. Although they are cheap, they pose many problems for the employer and public safety.

Database searches lack the integrity of “real time” public record searches since they are updated only periodically (up to six months in some places), which places them at odds with federal regulations governing consumer reporting agencies.

There is no such thing as a National Sex Offender Search. This advertised database check only searches registered sex offender. What’s the problem with that? It is up to the actual sex offender to register him/herself as they move from place to place. The only way to accurately find if there is a sex offender in your church is to conduct real time court docket background checks in all locations lived.

Another less known flaw of databases is that they generally contain less information than the original court record because resellers download fewer data fields into their systems in order to save money and make their product cheaper for the consumer.

So, how does one know what to do to avoid ignorance in background checks? The following are questions to ask when selecting a background screening service provider:

* When you call, will you be able to speak to a qualified professional who is knowledgeable about employment screening law, as opposed to a salesperson whose sole responsibility is to sell data?

* How long has the agency been in business?

 * Are you getting real time, complete, and current courthouse searches or limited database records?

* If the agency offers “statewide searches,” do these searches access all of the official state repository records (i.e., warrants, plea deals, deferrals, etc.) or just conviction data?

* If the “statewide searches” give complete records beyond just conviction data, does that state require all counties to report to the repository all charges or just fingerprinted ones?

 * If the agency offers “statewide searches,” are you getting both felony and misdemeanor records when you request a search?

* Will the agency provide you with client references of organizations similar to yours?

* Is the agency knowledgeable about the FCRA and can they assist you with compliance?

* Is the agency licensed (where required) and insured?

* Does the agency continually train employees on legal compliance?

* Does the agency sell personal identifiers that can later result in identity theft issues for your staff and volunteers?

When it comes to background investigations, do not be afraid to ask your provider questions and to seek out information yourself. After all, ignorance is not bliss, but education can let you rest assured that you and your church are protected.

Sandra Brewer has more than 20 years in the risk management and background investigation industry. She is the president/owner of Pinnacle Investigations, www.pinnacleprof.com.

Legal Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is intended to be authoritative and accurate information on the subject matter contained in the article at the time of submission for publication. It is distributed with the understanding that Pinnacle Investigations is not rendering legal advice and assumes no liability whatsoever in connection with its use.

Understanding How National Criminal Record Databases Work

Does a national database of all criminal records in the United States really exist? No, there is no single, integrated repository of all criminal data recorded in the U.S. State privacy laws and the limited availability of technology at the local level are just two of many reasons this type of resource does not exist.

The Federal Government Comes Close
At the government level, the Federal Bureau of Investigation maintains a database that comes close. The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database gathers criminal data from across all 50 states, consisting of 18 different record files including seven property files and 11 person files. But, the NCIC has its limitations. Many NCIC records are not criminal records, and of the actual criminal records, many are arrest records, which cannot be used to make staffing decisions. More importantly, access to the NCIC is not widely available to churches.

Screening Companies Provide Options
Over the past decade, several private companies have filled the growing need for a national criminal database tool. These firms contract with hundreds of jurisdictions at the city, county, and state level across the U.S. to receive regularly updated criminal data in electronic format. Upon receipt of this data, it is uploaded into a standardized, searchable database and made available to employers and other businesses. In turn, businesses pay a fee for the service, and, based on how they intend to the use the database, they must agree to the appropriate usage guidelines determined by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and other laws.

How Can a National Criminal Database Help You?
Databases provide fast results and cover a considerably broader geographical reach, compared to a traditional county courthouse search.

Due to the national coverage of a database, it can reveal records in jurisdictions not reported by an applicant as part of an attempt to hide a criminal history.

Since database searches cost a fraction of a county courthouse search, they can save money if a criminal record is found that would disqualify a candidate, while also saving the time and expense of performing additional searches or drug testing.

Recommended Use
While national criminal databases can be a valuable tool, it is important to know how to use them. Do not rely on this resource alone as an efficient method of performing a criminal background check. Always perform a national criminal database search and a county courthouse search together.

National criminal database information is comprehensive, often coming from sources across all 50 states, and regularly updated, often on a monthly basis but sometimes more or less frequently depending on the national database provider, criminal record coverage, and updates.  However, all databases have coverage gaps due to inadequate technology capabilities in some jurisdictions and state privacy laws, which ban the electronic distribution of criminal data.

County courthouse information is the most in-depth and up-to-date data available since it is researched at the courthouse on a daily basis; however, it only covers one county out of approximately 3,300 in the U.S. and relies heavily on information provided by an applicant.

But, combined, these two searches complement each other and drastically enhance the effectiveness of a background check. Think of it this way: A national criminal database is “an inch deep and a mile wide,” while a county courthouse search is “a mile deep and an inch wide.” When used together, you will receive the most comprehensive information available.

This article is courtesy of LexisNexis, one of the largest providers of background checks in the U.S.  The service is provided to churches through Group Publishing’s Church Volunteer Central Association, www.churchvolunteercentral.com.

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