BOKRIM Thinking

Sexual abuse criminal background check best practices

Criminal background checks were adopted by youth-serving organizations to prevent known pedophiles from being able to work with children or vulnerable adults. As a result, they were once considered a sexual abuse prevention “silver bullet.”  As one of the four main controls of most compliance-based abuse prevention programs, they still retain some of that cachet.

But the reality is that there have for some time been real concerns about just how valuable criminal background checks are given:

  1. how few pedophiles are “known,”
  2. how unreliable the records of known pedophiles are,
  3. how infrequently most “known” offenders appear to re-offend, and
  4. how much child sexual abuse is committed by people who aren’t pedophiles.

Despite these concerns, no one will ever argue against criminal background checks because:

  1. They are usually a compliance requirement;
  2. Who could look themselves in the eye if they found they hadn’t checked the background of someone who turned out to be a serial pedophile; and
  3. Who could defend a negligent hiring claim when a child’s attorney asks: “You mean you didn’t bother to check?”

So, despite their questionable value in preventing abuse, every youth-serving organization must use them.  But then the question is how do you make the best of a process you must use despite its questionable value?

You will get the best value out of criminal background checks not by thinking of them as a silver bullet but as one cog in a wheel, which is, in turn, part of a more extensive system.

  1. Background checks are part of an intake process which is part of how;
  2. you get everyone to behave in ways that are appropriate for your organization; which in turn is part of how
  3. your organization achieves its objectives.

Criminal background check best practice is, therefore, to think about them in the context of everything you must do to ensure your intake process ensures you have a demonstrably comprehensive and consistent approach to guarding who you allow to have access to the children and vulnerable adults in your care.  So, your intake process must:

  • enthuse the right people to apply to work with your organization
  • deter unsuitable people from applying to work with you
  • verify that the people who apply are who they say they are
  • verify they have the skills and experience you need
  • confirm, as far as possible, that they and your organization will be a good fit for each other, and
  • ensure everyone associated with your organization understands the behaviors required or expected of them.

To achieve this set of objectives, an intake process must include multiple elements, each of which has sexual-abuse-prevention-oriented purposes.  The elements can include:

  • Selection panel: a team to oversee the selection process for every new position to ensure the process is performed consistently well for all applicants and all posts;
  • Role description: to, amongst other things, ensure the role requirements are clear to the selection panel and are incumbent neutral;
  • Person specification: a companion to the role description, describing the personal attributes desired in a potential candidate;
  • Advertisements: a first opportunity to make an excellent first impression on a potential candidate and ensure talent is attracted from as broad a pool as possible;
  • Application form: to ensure consistent information is captured on all applicants;
  • Background checks: Criminal background checks, employment checks and references, residential checks, and personal references to ensure as far as possible that an applicant is suitable based on what can be established about their past;
  • Interview policy: to ensure the appropriate number of interviews take place, with an appropriate number of interviewers asking all the right questions of all the applicants and recording all the answers, so the selection panel has the same information on all applicants when deciding whom to offer the role to;
  • Offers: ensuring a formal set of terms, conditions, and behavior requirements is included in every written offer;
  • Onboarding: an introduction to a new arrival as soon after they arrive as possible (ideally the first morning) that, in addition to organization-based elements, includes initial sexual abuse and misconduct (SAM)-related training. If the person is also going to have SAM risk management responsibility, SAM risk management training may also be appropriate.
  • Appraisal (even though not strictly part of intake): in an ideal best practices approach, appraisals should consider SAM-related behaviors.

According to our research, over 95% of organizations use criminal background checks as their sole abuse prevention mechanism in intake terms because, though many organizations use many of these other elements, they rarely think of them in terms of – much less customize them for – SAM prevention. 

How will you get the most from your background checks?

To ensure background checks are as effective as possible from this broader intake process perspective, there are three questions you will want to consider:

  1. Who should (as opposed to must) be background checked?
  2. How extensive should the checks be?
  3. How will you manage your background check process?

Who should be background checked?

Though almost all youth-serving organizations must perform background checks, that is where the standard practices end.  The range of who gets background checked varies enormously.  It isn’t just that compliance regulations vary, for example, by sector and State; even within a sector, organizations interpret the rules differently. 

Some organizations limit background checks to full-time employees who are meant to have frequent, recurring contact with minors or vulnerable adults.  At the other end of the spectrum, organizations background check anyone who could have any recurring contact with children or vulnerable adults, however infrequent the contact may be, and regardless of intention, and however the person will be associated with the organization, whether it is as an employee, a contractor, or a volunteer.

Best practice obviously tends towards the latter approach, even if many organizations are technically compliant with the former.

How extensive should a criminal background check be?

Though we know of organizations that rely on searching for names in the National Sex Offender Public Website (, background checks are generally performed by companies created for the purpose, who perform social security number or fingerprint-based searches.  The criminal background checks that can be performed include the following:

  • Social Security Number validation
  • Name and address history records
  • Criminal Database searches covering all states plus DC, Guam, and Puerto Rico
  • Federal District Courts search for each name used and district where the individual currently lives or has lived during the past ten years, going back the length of time records are available and reportable
  • County Criminal Records for each name used and county where the individual currently lives or has lived during the past ten years, going back the length of time records are available and reportable for each county searched
  • Sex Offender Registry database searches of all available states, plus DC, Guam, and Puerto Rico
  • National Watch Lists
  • Sector-Specific Disciplinary Records
  • International Records search for individuals who have lived outside of the United States

Other elements of an individual’s background are often also verified, including:

  • Motor vehicle records of at least a 3-year history in the state of licensure; (if driving is required for the position)
  • Education verification and final degree received
  • Credit history
  • Social media scan
  • Professional license
  • Certification verification
  • Employment record
  • Employment references
  • Personal references

How will you manage your background check process?

As is evident from the above, a background check process involves more than completing a form and getting a red or green light result.  So, in addition to thinking about who gets background checked and what checks should be performed, you must also consider:

  • When should background checks be performed;
  • How will you deal with ambiguous results;
  • How will you deal with appeals;
  • How will you deal with minors;
  • How will you record who has and hasn’t been checked;
  • How often will you refresh a check;
  • Will you set automatic alerts for a change in background status and how will you deal with an alert;
  • How and how often will you verify that all background checks are current;
  • How frequently will you review your background check process (and vendor) to ensure you continue to meet your objectives and expectations for background checks?

Seen as part of the big picture, criminal background checks are an important tool in managing SAM risk and in helping organizations achieve their objectives. 

Please contact us if you would like to learn more about developing an intake process that is oriented towards sexual abuse prevention and ensures expected and required behaviors are understood, not just in sexual abuse prevention terms but also in terms of helping your organization meet its objectives.

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Tim Jaggs, BOKRIM Founder

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