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Keeping Your Youngest Members Safe
By: Ryan Brewer

"We're being sued!" These are words that no pastor or church board member ever wants to hear. Unfortunately, for hundreds of churches a year, this becomes a harsh reality and they are left asking the question, "What more could we have done?" Every day, 144 applicants apply for positions at churches and nonprofits, and, now more than ever, churches must do everything possible to protect their congregations and reputations.

When it comes to background checks, every church knows that they need to be doing something, but many don't know what they need to do. Background companies are a dime a dozen with everything from the $9 national criminal database to a check that includes records from Timbuktu and Kalamazoo. Churches have staff members, pastors, board members, and volunteers to check and ensure they are the right fit. Decision-makers need to know what is necessary to meet applicable laws and legal due diligence, while at the same time protecting their organization. As you can see, this is no easy task! Let's address a few of the foundational aspects that are needed in a proper criminal background check.

In an age of applicant confidentiality, you need to understand that the law is on your side and you have the right and moral responsibility to know an applicant's criminal history. What you don't know about an applicant can hurt you. You must meet legal due diligence regardless of what state laws are. Some states do not have strict requirements, but that does not mean that meeting the state minimums will legally protect you. Churches must carefully establish a policy regarding background checks for employees and volunteers.

Work with your legal counsel and/or a trusted and reputable background check provider to make sure that your application has proper verbiage to protect you and to inform the applicant of what checks are going to be conducted. Make sure to get the following from the applicant:

*Full Name 
* Date of Birth (DOB)  
*Social Security Number 
* Current Address

And, ask this question: Have you ever been arrested or convicted? One conviction does not necessarily mean that you will not use an applicant; what you are looking for is a pattern or anything of concern in a person's past history. Work with your background provider to establish "knockout criteria" for applicants. Just knowing that a thorough criminal background check is going to be conducted drives away individuals that have a criminal background or intent to harm or take advantage of the church.

Who Needs to Be Checked
In a church setting, there are many different roles that need to be filled, from nursery volunteers to home group leaders to security teams. The common question is, "Who should be checked?" This answer will vary by individual situations, but there are a few qualifications that would merit an individual having a background check conducted.

Individuals working with children and/or vulnerable adults
These are people and an area that needs to be the No. 1 priority when it comes to background checks and protecting people in your congregation. These are the most at-risk and attractive areas for individuals seeking to do harm or exploit a situation.

Individuals dealing with finance and/or personal information
Many of the crimes that are committed in churches and parachurch organizations are white-collar offenses such as embezzlement, fraud, identity theft, and a variety of other financially motivated crimes. Not only should individuals that have access to finances be checked, but also those that have access to sensitive personal identifiers and information. Many of these crimes are only available if the applicants Federal Court Criminal Records are searched.
Staff and board members
These individuals have a very public and important role in the leadership and direction of the church. For the most part, they have access to a number of different sensitive areas in the church. Anyone who serves the church as an employee or board member needs to have criminal background check conducted.

General volunteers 
 This would include ushers, greeters, small group leaders, security teams, etc. In light of their public role, they are seen as approved representatives of the church as a whole. Because of their different positions, they may have access to finances, the facility, and personal information.

Volunteers under 18 years of age
In many states, juvenile records are available. Felons can sometimes be as young as 14 or 15 and need to have their backgrounds checked.

What Checks to Conduct
There are some critical elements that you need to build a proper criminal background check.

Social Security Association
This check ensures that the applicant's provided SSN is valid and associated with the applicant. This provides an accurate picture and prevents against identity theft. Many of the "instant national checks" do not perform this check; they simply rely on the applicant to tell the truth.  This verification serves as the foundation for the rest of the background investigation process.

Alias and Maiden Name Research
This includes names that the individual may have been placed into the court system. Middle names and maiden names mean that sometimes they are multiple names associated with an individual that need to be checked.

Address History
The average applicant has lived in more than one location in the past seven years and, many times, it has been another state. Establishing an address history provides the location in which the criminal background check needs to be conducted.

Court Docket Level Criminal Record Search
This is the most important part of the whole background process that must be conducted to protect your organization and to meet your legal due diligence. A county and/or state criminal check is the most reliable, accurate, and up-to-date resource for an individual's criminal background.  There are over 3,100 court systems in the United States alone, and there is no one central reporting location with all of these records. Most of these records are kept at the court docket level (county and/or state) and are not reported anywhere else. The only way to ensure that you are protected is to go to the all of the individual courts where the applicant has lived.

National Sex Offender Check
This check has a listing of convicted level 2 and 3 sex offenders in the United States; however, this check is not all-inclusive. The National Sex offender registry only contains level 2 and 3 sex offenders and it is self registry, which means it is the responsibility of the sex offender to register. Many sex offenders are not registered, and their records will only be seen with a court docket level criminal background check.

National Federal Criminal Checks
Over one third of the crimes committed in the United States are prosecuted in Federal Court. These crimes include white-collar crimes, interstate crimes, and crimes of a heinous nature. The information on these cases is only available in the Federal Court System and will not show at the state and/or county level.

Thorough criminal checks need to be conducted on every applicant before they are granted a position or access to any volunteer role. In addition to an initial criminal background check, volunteers and staff members need to be checked annually or bi- annually. This check is a much simpler check that simply updates and rechecks the information already obtained by the original background check.

Your church does not have to be the next headline or statistic if you are committed to being diligent to establish policies and procedures for your background screening process. Establish a relationship and work with a reputable and experienced background investigation company that can help you in this process. Being committed to a strong volunteer application and background check process can ensure that you are protected and you can be the ministry that God has called you to be.

Ryan Brewer serves as the director of sales and marketing for Pinnacle Investigations in Spokane Valley, Washington, www.pinnacleprof.com.

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