Forward Thinking on Background Checks

Association Guest Column: National Alliance For Youth Sports

By Sarah Christy

If you were to take a poll among parents at any youth sports game across the country to determine how many of them thought their children's coach had undergone a background check, the majority of parents would probably assume that they did. In reality, there's a good chance they would be wrong.

It seems like a no-brainer that anyone working with children would undergo a thorough screening process. But because resources are usually scarce among volunteer organizations—and leagues are so eager to get the help of anyone willing to donate extra time—background screening can sometimes get the backseat. The good news is this is starting to change.

More and more youth organizations are starting to require background checks as part of their screening processes; well-known youth sports organizations such as Little League Baseball and Pop Warner both mandate some type of background check. And legislation supports this. In 1993 the National Child Protection Act was created, allowing organizations to perform background checks on people serving children. That act was amended in 1998 with the Volunteers for Children Act, which allows specified organizations and businesses—including volunteer recreation organizations serving children—to use national fingerprint-based criminal history checks to screen out volunteers and employees with relevant criminal records. (Information about each state's proceedings to access criminal background information can be found at http://www.doj.state.wi.us/dles/cib/sclist.asp.)

"Performing background screenings on volunteer staff has just recently become a recognized practice," says Catherine Aldrich, executive vice president of Accurate Background, which provides employment and volunteer screening. "The standards for conducting background checks should be the same for both paid and volunteer staff members, but screening volunteers should actually be more stringent. Criminals tend to pursue opportunities within organizations where they can continue their criminal behavior. Although a volunteer may seem altruistic in their intentions, it is possible for them to have unsavory ulterior motives."

When it comes to background screening, it's clear why this needs to be done in youth sports—in addition to the obvious risk to children, organizations running or allowing leagues to use their facilities also need to worry about the possibility of lawsuits—but it is sometimes less clear how a thorough background check is conducted.

Aldrich offers some pointers.

"When looking to employ the services of a screening provider, volunteer organizations should be concerned with the depth of the background checks conducted," she says. "Some online companies offer background checks at a nominal fee but typically only check sex-offender registries or other incomplete sources of information. This provides a false sense of security, and it is imperative to do a complete background check, including the court records from every residence your volunteer has lived."

The National Alliance For Youth Sports (NAYS)—a national nonprofit that works to ensure positive and safe youth sports—recently released a document outlining the components of a thorough background check, as well as suggested disqualifiers. In September, NAYS held a special session during its fourth annual International Youth Sports Congress in Denver focusing on the subject of background screening. Session attendees heard from several panelists with experience in the fields of background screening, youth sports and law enforcement and then gathered together to discuss options and disqualifiers in background checks among youth sports volunteers. That information, along with the input of several industry experts, was used to compose the document. (View the report at www.nays.org; click on "Volunteer Screening" on the pull-down menu.)

"What we were seeing was that a lot of organizations wanted to include background checks as part of their screening process but didn't know where to begin," says Fred Engh, president and CEO of NAYS. "Having guidelines to help them navigate their way through the sometimes confusing process of background checks will make things a lot easier."

The most important elements in an efficient background check include:

SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER AND NAME VERIFICATION. Obtain a copy of the potential volunteer's social security card. In verifying the social security number, you are ensuring accuracy in searching for the proper individual.

ADDRESS VERIFICATION FOR THE LAST SEVEN TO 10 YEARS. Start with making a copy of the applicant's current driver's license. An address verification is key to finding out where the individual has lived during this timeframe and which counties should be searched.

COUNTY COURTHOUSE SEARCH. Ninety-five percent of criminal convictions occur at the county level. If an organization conducts the search within the counties the applicant has lived, it has the best chance of finding past convictions.

SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRY SEARCH. Most states have some type of registry that is available to the public free for search. The FBI has a Web site that lists links to most states. Visit www.fbi.gov/hq/cid/cac/states.htm for a list of state links.


The Nine Steps of Background Screening

The National Alliance For Youth Sports has identified nine components of a thorough background screening process for youth sports volunteers:

A SCREENING POLICY MUST BE IN WRITING. Screening begins with a policy that requires all volunteers to go through the process—even if the prospective volunteer is "well-known" in the community.

PROVIDE JOB DESCRIPTIONS FOR EVERY POSITION. The job description should provide a detailed outline of the responsibilities and duties of the position and should communicate to the volunteer the organization's position and philosophy regarding youth sports.

COMPLETED APPLICATION FORMS SHOULD BE PROVIDED FOR ALL POSITIONS. Often, there are more organizations in need of volunteers than there are volunteers, leading those organizations to believe any volunteer will do—called "warm-body syndrome." Don't get caught by this.

A CONSENT/RELEASE FORM MUST BE SIGNED AND DATED. This form will protect your organization by having volunteers authorize the investigation of their backgrounds. Specifically, this form should state clearly to the volunteer that his/her background will be investigated, and that a criminal history check also may be conducted.

EVALUATE APPLICATION AND REVIEW REFERENCES, EMPLOYERS AND INFORMATION TO DETERMINE IF THE APPLICANT POSSESSES THE BASIC NECESSITIES FOR THE POSITION. Take the extra time needed to carefully complete this part of the process.

INTERVIEW THE APPLICANT. Try to use a systematic approach and develop a standard interview plan to save time and allow for consistency. Don't be afraid to ask tough questions.

CONDUCT A CRIMINAL HISTORY BACKGROUND CHECK. If resources are scarce, contact your local lawmakers and officials to find out ways they can aid you in this step. Some companies offer services to volunteer organizations for reduced fees.

REVIEW RESULTS AND PROVIDE CONTINUOUS OVERSIGHT OF VOLUNTEERS. An organization should decide how to evaluate screening results and determine what issues make a volunteer undesirable and then document this decision. Periodically evaluate a volunteer's performance.

PROVIDE TRAINING FOR ALL VOLUNTEERS AND HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE. This is a very important part of the process that will ensure volunteers are properly educated to work with children in the sports environment. Have volunteers pledge to uphold a code of ethics.


When it comes to background checks, determining disqualifiers also can be confusing. The following should disqualify a potential volunteer from working with children:

  • Any sort of abuse or assault/battery—physical or sexual
  • Rape
  • Any crime of a sexual nature, including possession or dissemination of pornography
  • Homicide or manslaughter in any degree
  • Attempted murder
  • Domestic violence
  • Child neglect
  • Felony drug crimes
  • Animal cruelty
  • Theft/robbery
  • Forgery/fraud
  • Kidnapping
  • Arson
  • Weapons violations
  • Any crime, misdemeanor or felony, involving children as either an accomplice or victim

Although background checks are an important part of screening, Engh reminds organizations that they are only one part and suggests adopting a comprehensive screening process that also includes the training of youth sports volunteers, such as coaches, parents, administrators and officials; reference checking; and interviewing applicants. (See sidebar for a suggested screening process.)

All things considered, screening your potential youth sports volunteers is a win-win for everyone involved, and with a little education about the subject, there's no reason every youth sports organization shouldn't be making this a priority.

"The practice of background screening protects our vulnerable society, resources, nonprofit organizations, churches and sporting associations alike," Aldrich says. "Knowing your volunteers creates efficiencies and secures the safety of our organizations and other volunteering members."



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Christy is the public-relations director at the National Alliance For Youth Sports, which has been training coaches, parents, administrators and officials for 25 years to ensure positive youth sports. For more information, visit www.nays.org.




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