Criminal Records Checks

Patrick Boyle
November 1, 2002

Several developments in the past few months have suddenly made it possible for any youth-serving nonprofit to quickly find out if any of its volunteers have been convicted of child molesting or other crimes.

Little League Baseball last month announced one of the most sweeping policies of any national youth agency, mandating that each of its more than 1 million volunteers be checked against state sex offender registries. Little League has created an Internet-based system to make that process easy, and left it open for use by anyone.

Pop Warner Football said it will soon adopt the same policy for its 37,000 volunteers.

At the same time, a Georgia company has begun conducting even more thorough background checks – covering all convictions in every state – for many volunteers with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and Girl Scouts USA. The BSA plans to require this background check next year for every one of its 1.2 million volunteers, according to the company, ChoicePoint.

The cost: Most of the sex offender registries are free, and the ChoicePoint checks start at $1.50. ChoicePoint says it will offer the same deal to any nonprofit in the country.

“Anyone who’s not doing it, shame on them,” said Boys & Girls Clubs Vice President Stephen Salem, who helped to arrange the set-up with ChoicePoint.

These developments mark a huge step forward for the nation’s largest youth-serving agencies, which have struggled for years with questions about whether they should check for convictions among all their volunteers. Several agencies, such as the BSA, have said doing so would be too labor-intensive, too expensive, too slow and so offensive to the volunteers that many of them
would quit.

But with the public growing more angry about tales of adult leaders molesting children – an anger fueled recently by the scandal over abuse of children by Catholic priests – more youth-serving organizations have had to frankly examine the dangers to children within their own agencies. And they’ve been looking for ways to protect themselves from the growing harm caused by bad press and lawsuits resulting from abuse cases.

The problem is that conducting criminal background checks has always been difficult, thanks to a hodgepodge of state laws that limit who can get access to criminal databases and how much it costs. But now computer technology has made background checks faster and cheaper.

“It’s important that an organization consider doing background checks as part of what they do” to screen volunteers and staff, says John Patterson, senior program director of the D.C.-based Nonprofit Risk Management Center. He adds, “It shouldn’t be the only thing that they do.”

Making It Work

Like many youth-serving organizations, Little League has been hit with lawsuits over cases of youths being molested by volunteer leaders, including leaders who had been convicted of child molesting before joining Little League. This summer, for instance, police in California filed 61 sex abuse charges against a Little League equipment manager, John Racadio, who was already a registered child molester.

Little League, based in Williamsport, Pa., has encouraged its local leagues to conduct background checks for years, and many of them do. But starting next spring, Little League says, the leagues must conduct sex offender registry checks every year on all managers and coaches (including assistants), board members and even “team parents” – the ones who organize snack schedules.

It seems just the kind of gargantuan task that youth agencies have said couldn’t be carried out by a volunteer force.
Here’s how it should work, says Little League spokesman Lance Van Auken:

Each local league will create a panel that will take the names of every volunteer each spring and check them against the state’s sex offender registry via computer. Headquarters suggests a three-member panel made up of the league president and people with some kind of legal background, such as police and attorneys.

They can get free access to sex offender registries in more than 40 states, according to Little League. Many of those registries are online, and Little League has created a map on its web page that links anyone to those registries.

Most of the registries are simple to use, requiring only the name of the person being checked. Some require user registration.
For states that do not have such registries, local leagues must ask for a state or federal criminal background check. Those background checks are far more thorough (they cover more crimes), but are also harder to obtain and often cost between $5 and $20 each.

The national office suggests that the local leagues charge the volunteers for cost, or raise extra funds in their communities. That first option is something that other youth-serving groups have been loath to impose on volunteers.

It remains to be seen how well the local leagues will follow the rule, even if they intend to. To be chartered each spring, the local league president will have to sign a statement pledging to conduct the checks.

And for a league to enter tournament play later in the season – which Van Auken says includes “98 percent of our leagues” – the president must sign a statement saying the checks were done. Otherwise, the league would be banned from tournaments.

A Step Beyond

The ChoicePoint background checks include sex offender registries, but the company’s database also includes conviction records from every state, says Lauren Waits, vice president of the company division that oversees the program, called VolunteerSelect.

ChoicePoint is a database management firm that helps companies screen potential employees.

VolunteerSelect, unveiled in July, uses several ChoicePoint databases, including one that has records on 63 million convictions, the company says. VolunteerSelect has been endorsed by the National Assembly of Health and Human Services Organizations, based in Washington.

The cost and extent of the background checks vary with each state and with the package the nonprofit chooses, Waits says.
The Boys & Girls Clubs’ national office is covering the costs for its clubs. Although the national office requires its clubs to conduct criminal background checks on all volunteers, they can do that through their own state law enforcement agencies, Vice President Salem says. He estimated that half of the clubs have signed on to VolunteerSelect.

This still leaves youth agencies a step short of their goal: unfettered access to national criminal background checks from the government. The National Assembly, the Boys & Girls Clubs and others are pushing for that access through the National Child Protection Improvement Act, introduced by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.).

The bill would create a National Center for Volunteer Screening to oversee and process background check requests from agencies, which would pay little or nothing.

Most agencies would apply to their designated state agencies (such as the attorney general’s office) to conduct national background checks on volunteers. But if the national center determined that a state is not giving access to volunteer organizations, or is taking too long or charging too much for the process, the agencies in that state could apply directly to the center for the background checks.

As in all discussions about criminal background checks, it’s important to point out their inherent limits. Patterson of the risk management center worries that agency leaders might think “the be-all and end-all of protecting kids in youth sports programs is doing a background check, and they haven’t looked at other issues, such as discouraging any one-on-one contact” between youth and adult leaders.

Noting that criminal checks only reveal convicts, Patterson says, “There are a lot of people out there who haven’t been caught yet.”