Non-profit and community organizations depend on thousands of volunteers to help support their extensive programs. Many of these volunteers work exclusively with children. It is important to screen each volunteer to ensure that potential predators do not have access to these children. Because all volunteers could potentially have access to children, all adult volunteers and employees should go through a strict screening process regardless of relationships with staff, position in the community, or any other reason.
A thorough screening will include many of the following:
- A written volunteer application
- Verification of written application information
- A survey to gauge their interest
- Interviews (in person and via phone)
- Parental release forms for minors
- Previous employment background checks
- Criminal background checks
- Screening through the National Sex Offender Public Registry
- A minimum of three confirmed personal, non-related references
- Observe the applicant with children
Review Application Carefully
Unclear or suspicious information should be noted and addressed during a phone interview. Also, if any information on the application appears to be falsified make to sure to verify it. Potentially falsified information could include age, work experience, previous volunteer experience, and more.
Conduct Phone Interviews
Conduct phone interviews to determine qualifications and verify all information submitted via the written volunteer application. Phone interviewers should be well-trained on the types of questions to ask as well as how to best interpret the responses of possible volunteers. Several full-time employees should be involved in the interview process in order to obtain several opinions.
Verify ALL References
Call previous employers to confirm employment and determine how the applicants’ skills are best suited for the organization. Ask specifically if they have any concerns about the candidate working directly with children. Checking male and female references may provide different perspectives on the candidate. If the list of references provided by the applicant is suspicious or minimal encourage staff to request different references.
Clearly Explain Policies
Inform potential volunteer candidates of the heightened priority your organization places on protecting children. Discuss the policies and procedures in place to protect children from all types of abuse. Mention to all volunteer applicants the steps involved in the process to identify potential abusers of children. Explaining the emphasis on protecting children from abuse can quickly deter any individual seeking easy access to children.
Don’t Guarantee Anything
Hire all volunteers on a probationary basis and inform them that their ability to work as a volunteer is dependent on job performance, verification of references, and background history checks. Supervise very closely during the probationary period. Trust your instincts. If an applicant or current volunteer makes you uncomfortable, do not hesitate to discontinue their work with children.
Put it in Writing
Draft a written volunteer code of conduct and volunteer agreement and require all new volunteers sign it. Then, create files for all volunteers which should contain the following information in it plus any additional information deemed relevant:
- Verified application
- Signed contract/letter of agreement
- Parental release form for volunteers under 18
- Signed code of conduct
- Easily identifiable photograph
- Confirmation of completed reference checks
- Completed criminal background checks
- Documented results of National Sex Offender Public Registry search
The Screening Process
Criminal Background Checks
Start by assessing how much access and contact an applicant will have with children in their desired position. Some states require that all volunteers who could potentially work with children go through a criminal background check. However, it is best to conduct these checks regardless of whether or not it is required by law in your state.
There are several options available for conducting criminal background checks. Using the same process already in place for background checking full-time paid employees helps avoid confusion and can streamline the screening process. Another way to begin conducting a criminal background check is to contact the local police department and follow their recommended instructions since processes can vary throughout each state. The cost of the background check will differ by state; some states waive fees for non-profits.
Remember that it is a legal requirement to have an applicant’s permission before conducting a criminal background check. Once this is completed, the applicant’s information can be passed to the police department and they can conduct the check.
Criminal background checks, however, are not a foolproof method for screening potential child abusers, since they only discover individuals with prior criminal activity. This does not lessen the importance of intensive screenings and background checks. Checks will always be important for discovering those with prior convictions and provide strong evidence against allegations of negligence in screening volunteers.
National Sex Offender Public Registry
A search on the National Sex Offender Public Registry is a quick and cost-free step that identifies any applicants registered as a sex offender. It searches every state’s sex offender registry and provides a photo and details on prior offenses.
Family Watchdog is a third-part service that taps into the NSOPW.gov database and provides a map view of all registered sex offenders in an area. Family Watchdog is free, but supported by advertisements.
Third Party Organizations
In addition to government-sponsored options, several third party organizations specialize exclusively in performing background checks for a fee. These checks are typically very thorough and utilize numerous databases from local, national, and federal sources to check for any type of previous criminal activity. Some of these services will perform this service at a discount or possibly cost-free for non-profit organizations. It is still mandatory to have the individual’s consent before conducting a third party background check.
Charges or Convictions Discovered
Criminal background checks are confidential. All employees involved in the volunteer screening process must understand the legal ramifications of disclosing any of the information discovered. It is important to consider the following questions when considering a volunteer applicant with a criminal background.
- How long ago was the conviction?
- What is the nature of the crime?
- Is the individual legally allowed to work with or close to children?
- Was there more than one conviction?
- Do the circumstances of the crime lead you to believe it could be repeated?
- Did the individual go through any rehabilitation activities?