The Secret Scoop on Cheap Background Checks

“Ex-Bible student admits to sex with teen” is the type of headline that grabs my attention.  I did a quick read of the article, digesting the highlights.  Union College Bible student, 21 years old, charged with three counts of sexual misconduct with a minor, a class C felony in Indiana.  The crime was committed, apparently multiple times, on a public high school campus.  The court accepted a plea agreement which reduced the conviction to one count of sexual misconduct with a minor, reduced it to a class D felony, suspended the prison sentence and did not require him to register as a sex offender.  And the kicker is after a year and a half of probation he was eligible for the case to be reduced to a misdemeanor and a check this week with the courts validated it had been reduced.

I could go on and on about how wrong this is.  How our criminal justice system should not allow people in positions of trust to prey on children and escape unscathed.  How those who abuse children often go undetected or unpunished.  How 94% of men who rape do not go to jail (RAINN).  How young women between 16-24 years old are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted (RAINN).   So are we really shocked that that less than 39% of rapes are reported in the U.S (RAINN).

Knowing all of this, my first reaction after reading the newspaper article was to wonder where this sex offender will work or volunteer.   I actually thought of churches and volunteer organizations and the limited background checks that they run on potential staff and volunteers.  I have talked to hundreds and hundreds of churches and youth organizations that rely on a “national criminal database” search because it is cheap or because they have become a victim of low standard marketing by the background screening industry and have been lead to believe this cheap database search reveals everything.

I ran this offender through some of the most widely used national criminal databases and he did not show up.  He comes back clear.  As clean cut as he probably looks.

How does he come back clear?  It is very simple.  In the U.S. there does not exist a single database, not even the FBI’s NCIC that is complete.  The national databases that are heavily marketed to volunteer organizations actually in more than half of the states only receive criminal records if the offender was incarcerated in prison or was required to register as a sex offender.  Our Bible student from Indiana was not required to register as a sex offender and he was not sent to prison and therefore no data was submitted to the national database providers.

If you are an organization that views an additional $10 as too much money to spend to protect your children or your organization then you just opened the door to your organization and gave him access to your children.  I am all about cheap when it comes to grocery shopping, clothes and office supplies but the same principal applied to background screening will get someone hurt.  Background screening is a complicated business that requires multiple layers of screening and a diligent set of eyes reviewing the data.  That is why our packages contain numerous screening solutions which provide for a check and balance so if one system fails another will catch the record.  Our Bible student might come back clear in the national database because Indiana limits the data they report but he was found in the County Criminal Search we conducted.

We are at a background screening crossroad in the U.S.  Most organizations have dipped their toe into the pool of background checks but it is time to graduate to a level of background screening that is done correctly with safety and security as our motivation.   The first step is to do a “gut check” and honestly ask ourselves why we are doing background checks.  If it is only because our attorney said we should be doing something to reduce our liability then we probably are not doing enough. And if we are still not doing background checks and justify it by saying we cannot afford to then we are exposing ourselves to great risk.   Working with children, the elderly, the disabled or vulnerable populations comes with a moral responsibility to make sure we do all that we can to protect them.  A child harmed will live with it for a lifetime.

We have a moral and legal obligation to make sure we provide a safe work environment.  What I have learned in more than twenty years of violence prevention work, interviewing offenders and comforting victims, is that those who harm children always seek positions where they have access to children.  Protecting those that cannot protect themselves is a heavy burden and requires us to step across the line and do all that we can to keep them safe.