Types of Volunteer Background Checks
John M. Sadler, JD, CIC
February 13, 2015
Every reasonable effort should be made to protect youth sports participants from adults in the program who have a history of unacceptable criminal activity. In a 2014 study, an estimated 12.93% of all volunteers screened had a criminal background record and 3.2% of would be coaches had convictions involving sex offenses, violence, or other felonies. 18% of these individuals committed their crime outside of their current state of residency. (Source: Southeastern Security Consultants, Inc.)
For starters, background checks on volunteers, especially those with repeated access to youth players, are an important part of the volunteer screening program in youth sports. All volunteer staff should be notified prior to acceptance of their duties that they will be subject to a favorable background check and must provide their consent via a volunteer application. Such notification should also explain the steps that are being taken to safeguard their privacy and rights should any unfavorable information be found. Only one league administrator should be in charge of collecting and reviewing volunteer applications, receiving the results of the background checks, and making the disqualification decisions in order to reduce the chances of a release of confidential information. An unfavorable background check should disqualify a volunteer from participation if it falls within a sports organization’s predetermined, written disqualification criteria.
The term “background check” represents a broad category of different types of checks that can be obtained from various sources. The quality of the source varies greatly and decisions made solely on price tend to result in less than satisfactory results from both the protection offered to youth and the amount of administrative work placed on the sports organization. The following criteria can be used when analyzing various sources:
- Cost – Ranges from free to $70 per volunteer depending on the accuracy and thoroughness of the search and the services that are offered by the provider. Lower cost sources are limited to inferior national database searches, omit important county courthouse searches, have unfiltered results, and offer immediate or 24-hour results.
- Geographic Region Searched – Varies by county, state, or national database.
- Accuracy And Thoroughness – Varies greatly depending on the input procedure of the source, how often the source is updated, if the source is the most likely one to yield results for a particular volunteer based on his/her address history, the number of sources that are checked, if the social security number is verified, and if an address trace is performed.
- Waiting Period To Receive Results – Varies from immediate to an 84-day waiting period to view results.
- Your Administrative Time Required Per Volunteer – Varies from thirty seconds to several minutes per volunteer record to be checked. This does not include the additional time to interpret raw court data.
- All Criminal Records Checked? – Some sources may not reveal all types of criminal records as some are limited to sexual crimes only.
- Your Legal Liabilities For Mistakes Made – Varies depending on the services that are outsourced to a background check provider. Liabilities can result from mismatch between volunteer and record received, improper interpretation of record, Fair Credit Reporting Act violations for failure to provide required legal notices, illegal use of information protected by First Offender Act, and by slander actions resulting from inappropriate release of confidential information. Even though these potential liabilities exist, the absence of any reasonable attempt to screen unsuitable volunteers presents a far more serious vulnerability to legal liability.
Sexual Offender Registry Checks (SOR)
SOR checks are currently available for free on the internet at www.nsopw.gov which accesses all 50 state sex offender registries.
The advantages of SOR’s are that they are free, do not require permission from the volunteer, take very little administrative time to input names, the results are immediate, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act and related administrative notice burdens do not apply.
The disadvantages this SOR is that there is no Social Security Number verification to assure the volunteer has not provided an alias, there is no consistency from state to state on registry requirements (i.e. some states require only violent sex offenders to register, missing are the non violent sex offenders), the input source is a third party (instead of being input automatically as a part of the judicial process), the website may not be frequently updated, and most importantly is that the SOR only reveals sex offenders, while many other serious crimes should be of concern such as murder, robbery, felony drugs, etc.
On the other hand, thorough criminal background checks (as opposed to SORs) will provide all misdemeanor and felony information (not just sex offenses) that a sports organization may want to take into account in the disqualification process. Criminal background checks show offenses that go back a minimum of 7 years, but much longer in most cases. Also, criminal background checks do not rely on third parties to enter information into the database as this happens automatically as part of the judicial process.
Local Law Enforcement
Local law enforcement is often contacted as a potential “free” source of criminal background checks. However, local law enforcement agencies are increasingly declining such requests due to limited manpower. When making requests to local law enforcement, you should specifically inquire as to which source will be used to run the criminal background check.
If law enforcement uses a single county record check as a source, this will not reveal criminal offenses which may have occurred in a different county. If they use a state database as a source (compiled from single county courthouse records), this will not reveal criminal offenses which may have occurred in a different state. Generally, local law enforcement does not confirm information provided by the volunteer (Name/dob/ss#/address) and provides raw court data with no interpretation of information.
Third Party Vendors
Various third party vendors offer criminal background checks on a fee basis that range from “do it yourself” low cost national database checks to “full service” higher cost multiple source checks with Social Security Number verification, address trace, and other add-ons.
Before choosing a third party vendor, you need to assess the cost and services based on the following basic criteria:
- Cost – Ranges from $2.50 to $23.00 per volunteer
- Your Administrative Time Required Per Volunteer – Varies per vendor. Some vendors require you to input data (name, addresses, SSN) into their online screens and to retrieve results. Some are set up whereby the volunteer can submit their own information to trigger the background check. The “do it yourself” model can take several minutes of administrative time per volunteer. On the other hand, other vendors may simply require that you fax the signed volunteer applications (which collect the appropriate information) and they handle all input and retrieval of results.
- Waiting Period To Receive Results – Most vendors take up to five days to receive results unless a national database is the only source that is to be checked. Results from a national database search can be instant.
- Social Security Number Verification – This check is used to verify the identity of the applicant. A match between the name that is provided on the application and the name that is on file for the Social Security Number that was provided on the application protects against the applicant’s providing a wrong Social Security Number in order to evade a background check.
- Address Trace – Verifies addresses listed on the volunteer application over the past 7 years with database records as a basis for determining the best sources of records to search for a particular location or court jurisdiction.
- Social Security Number Address Trace – Pulls prior addresses from public records with utility companies and credit card bureaus that have the applicant’s Social Security Number on file. This service provides an independent source to verify past addresses that may not be listed on an application.
- Intelligent Choice Of Sources To Be Searched – Based on the prior addresses indicated in 3. or 4. above, the third party vendor can make an intelligent choice of which county courthouse records should be searched based on the most recent and/or longest county of residence.
- Single County Courthouse check – Many vendors will send a researcher to check for criminal records in the county courthouse or courthouses where the applicant has lived most recently and/or for the longest period of time.
- National Database Check – A number of national sources have negotiated agreements with a large percentage of counties and state databases throughout the US to collect criminal background records by electronic means. National databases collect a huge number of records on a national level to help detect predators and other criminals that move from one state to the next. However, many experts believe that they should not be the only source of a background check since many counties and some states refuse to share their information and those that do share information may update records with a 60 day lag time. In the past, many organizations relied on low cost national database registry checks. Studies indicated that relying solely on the national database missed approximately 50% of criminal records that would disqualify an applicant. This trend has changed in recent years as new standards for background checks have been established by parks and recreation agencies and USOC SafeSport which require the use of state and country checks in addition to national database checks.
- Sexual Offender Registry Checks (SOR) – An additional search may be provided based on a national database that combines records from all 50 state sexual offender registries.
- Terrorist Database Check –
- Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) Compliance – Compliance with the FCRA requires the following steps to be taken:
- Obtain a signature from the volunteer authorizing the criminal background check to be performed. (This authorization should be a part of the volunteer application).
- Those volunteers who are to be disqualified based on their background check must receive a copy of the background check report, the “Summary of Your Rights under the FCRA” document, and a written communication that they have been disqualified based on their background check.
- Failure to comply with the FCRA can result in civil penalties and liabilities for the individuals within the sports organization administering the criminal background checks. This liability can be shifted to the third party vendor if they offer the FCRA compliance service.
- First Offender Act Compliance – Third party vendors can offer an additional service to filter out any criminal record that is protected under the First Offender Act. Failure to comply can result in civil liabilities for the individuals within the sports organization administering the criminal background checks.
- Disqualification Decision: Green Light/Red Light – Some third party vendors will provide the additional service of determining whether the volunteer is disqualified based upon your predetermined disqualification criteria (the vendors can assist with the development of these criteria on your behalf). Transferring the disqualification decision to the third party vendor shields the sports organization and its administrators from liabilities arising out of a mismatch between the volunteer and the record received, improper interpretation of the nature of a criminal record and resulting wrongful disqualification decision, FCRA compliance, First Offender Act Compliance, and potential slander actions resulting from intentional or accidental release of confidential information.
Please note that the potential liabilities for these mistakes are outweighed by the potential liability for not making a reasonable attempt to screen out unsuitable volunteers.
Are FBI Fingerprint Checks the Ultimate Solution to Catch Predators with Stolen Identities?
Much attention has been given to the fact that it is possible for a predator to assume the identity and Social Security number of another person in order to avoid detection.
It is assumed that the non-fingerprint based criminal background vendors will let these predators slip between the cracks and that only FBI 10-Fingerprint Check will detect their true criminal backgrounds. These assumptions are not necessarily true.
First, some of the quality vendors of non-fingerprint based criminal background have checks in place to protect against fabricated or stolen Social Security Numbers. Such vendors can run a social security verification to confirm that the applicant/volunteer is indeed attached to the SSN.
Such a verification will return the names of others who have used that SSN, DOB, age, historical addresses, time span for those addresses, and counties of residence. This verification information can then be compared to the same information that was indicated on the volunteer application. Any discrepancies would be a “red flag” for a stolen identity.
Second, while the FBI 10-Fingerprint Check can be an almost foolproof verification of the volunteer’s identity, it has several drawbacks. The major drawback is that the turnaround time on receiving the results can range from 6-12 weeks or more. It is not uncommon for the fingerprint card to be returned for re-fingerprinting due to a smudge. Generally, in addition to the charge for the FBI check, an additional charge is levied by the agency collecting the fingerprint. Also, it could be cumbersome to coordinate the fingerprinting with the schedules of the volunteers. In addition, the FBI database shows arrests only and does not indicate the disposition of the case. Another limitation is that the FBI database only has approximately 60 million records on file.
There is no one best type of background check that will offer the best results across the board on all criteria. The background check standard for youth sports volunteers that is being developed through most common practices includes: A search for all misdemeanors and felonies in the applicant’s longest most recent county of residence along with a national criminal record and sex offender search.
Naturally, the most accurate and thorough types of background checks tend to be the most expensive. Individual sports organizations will need to weigh their budgetary constraints against what the courts are requiring in terms of “due diligence” when screening volunteers.