Sunday, April 12, 2015

Volunteers & Background Checks - Questions Continue

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Volunteers are critical to the success of many organizations.  With tight budgets to hire full or even part-time employees, volunteers take up the slack.  


They spend countless hours coaching youth sports, delivering meals to the needy, mentoring and tutoring children, and so many more things to help those around them.


And with summer approaching, there are also many who volunteer in local day and sleep-over camps, in day cares, and as part of other summer programs.


Volunteers do these things as a way to give back to their community.  They believe in making a difference and in being a good citizen.  Their goal is to help those around them, especially our children, elderly, and disabled.  


However, there have also been horror stories about the danger some of these volunteers have posed.  Reports of convicted abusers who are found volunteering as coaches or in child care are an obvious cause for concern.


Today, more than ever, organizations who use volunteers need to address this issue.  Protecting the very people they are trying to help must be a priority.  This is where screening volunteers comes in.


At the same time, these organizations do not want to alienate the volunteers they desperately need.  Concerns that a background check will violate the volunteer’s privacy and that these organizations will not protect their personal information can arise.


This can be a delicate balancing act.  Organizations are faced with the need to weed out unsafe volunteers without alienating the loyal and dedicated volunteers they need. 


New laws are being passed in some states (Pennsylvania is an example) that  mandate background checks on anyone who comes in “direct contact” with our children.  Despite this, questions continue.


And it is even more problematic when it comes to Volunteers.


What exactly is “direct contact”?  Does it cover anyone who is even in the same room as children?  Or does it only pertain to those who have unsupervised contact?
    

Who pays the fees associated with these background checks?  Is it cost prohibitive for organizations, especially non-profits, to cover the cost?  Or is it an undue burden on volunteers who are asked to pay for it themselves? 


What exactly should be checked?  Since no standard exists, what is best practice?


What offenses should disqualify someone from volunteering?


What can be done to minimize a volunteer’s objections to a background check?    


This can all be very confusing for organizations who use volunteers.  


In reality, most organizations run some type of background check on their volunteers.  These background checks are run for the same reasons as they would be on any employee ~ to keep out anyone who is unsafe.  


But while there may be some who are wary of pre-employment background checks, volunteers are often even more put off by the idea.


Long-time volunteers may object to a new screening policy after years of giving their time and energy to an organization.  While those considering volunteering for the first time might be turned off from even applying.


Many are understandably worried about their personal information being leaked.  Volunteers may also believe that a new screening policy creates an atmosphere of distrust. 


The bottom line is this:


Volunteers Who Work with Children Need Background Checks!  “Tweet This”


It is most important to remember that the top priority should always be the safety and well-being of our children. 


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Organizations can take definite steps to achieve this goal.  It is possible to provide a safe and productive environment for the children you serve while mitigating the concerns of your volunteers.


To do this, Organizations Need to:


Create a Written Volunteer Screening Policy

This policy should outline the screening procedures used and be included in your organization’s written policies.  Make sure that everyone is fully informed of your policy and publish it both in your written materials and online for all to clearly see.


Provide Job Descriptions for Every Position within Your Organization

This should include exactly what is required of each volunteer who fills the position.  Being clear on this up front sets expectations and boundaries.  It is also a great way of determining what needs to be checked during screening by fitting the scope of the check to the job duties. (Find out more about this in my article “One Size Does Not Fit All ~ Why You Need to Fit the BG Check to the Job!”).   



Obtain an Application and Signed Release for All Volunteers

The application should include the potential volunteer’s full name, any previous names used, addresses for the past 7 years, employers, references, and a copy of their photo ID.  It is important that you get this application from each volunteer and keep it in a secure file.

This also goes for a signed release form.  This form both notifies a volunteer that a background check will be performed and documents their consent.  Requiring this authorization helps protect your organization. 



Establish Procedures to Review the Volunteer’s Application 

In reviewing the application, look for inconsistencies in the information listed.  Check references and confirm employment history.  Any questionable information found during this process needs to be documented.  It is also important to be clear that anything found to be false on the application is cause for disqualification as a volunteer. Taking the time necessary to be diligent here is an important step in making sure you identify possibly problematic volunteers.  




Clearly Identify Which Criminal Offenses Would Disqualify a Volunteer

While it is important that each organization determine for themselves what offenses will prohibit someone from volunteering, the following criminal offenses should be automatic grounds for disqualification:


  • Child Abuse or Domestic Violence Convictions
  • Sex Offenses & Sexual Misconduct Convictions
  • Violent Felony Convictions

Although these offenses may not be grounds for immediate disqualification, Pending Criminal Cases, Arrests, and Misdemeanors within the past 7 years should also be noted.


Document All Information Obtained During the Screening Process & All Actions Taken 

Be sure to keep a written log of what was checked, when it was checked, and what action was taken because of the information obtained.  It is important to keep a clear and concise record of any decision you make regarding each of your volunteers.


Identify the Background Check Fees & Who is Responsible for Paying Them

State clearly whether these fees are to be paid fully by your organization, fully by the volunteer, or by a combination of the two.  Being up front is the best way to avoid surprises.


Create a Privacy and Personal Information Policy

Protection of sensitive, personal information should be a priority. All the information obtained on each volunteer, from the application, application review, and the criminal background check, must be kept completely confidential.  It is good practice to keep the application review results and criminal check histories separate from the general volunteer files.  These should only be accessible to authorized personnel.



We need to remember that Volunteers are Important.  They provide much needed man power to many organizations and their contributions cannot be minimized.  


However, that does not mean that we should take any volunteer into our organization blindly.  Making sure they do not pose a potential problem to those we serve is priority number one.


Putting sound screening procedures in place to make sure this does not happen is a great start.  And making sure your volunteers understand why these checks are necessary is key.   


Then we can go about doing what we set out to do ~ Helping Others!


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