Every nonprofit organization is responsible for taking reasonable measures to protect service recipients from harm. This responsibility extends to all facets of a camp's interactions with its clientele.
While not a panacea, careful screening of the paid and volunteer staff who work with vulnerable populations is an important risk management comprehensive strategy. The failure to adequately screen applicants may place service recipients in dangerous situations. Checking the criminal history records of applicants is one valuable tool in a screening process.
This article explores some of the factors a camp should resolve prior to conducting criminal history record checks.
Preparing to Conduct Criminal History Record Checks
A criminal history record check is part of a screening process — not a selection criterion. Before incorporating criminal history record checks into their screening processes, a camp should establish screening criteria — clear guidelines stating which offenses are relevant; what offenses will disqualify an applicant; what other factors will be considered; and how the rights of the applicant will be preserved.
The mission of each camp provides a gauge for determining the amount of risk that they decide to accept. A camp using ex-gang members as mentors for "at-risk youths" will likely use a different standard for evaluating criminal history records than an organization that assists camps with special needs.
Within the context of a camp's mission, the offenses that you might consider relevant are a function of the specific position in which a paid or volunteer staff person will serve. Some camps limit the use of criminal history record checks to positions who have substantial direct contact with children (as defined by state law). Others assume everyone on the camp property has access to children, and that all staff should be checked.
The next question that camps must answer is "What offense would disqualify an individual from serving in such positions?" When establishing screening criteria, camps must take into account state and local laws and regulations. Some jurisdictions have instituted screening or licensing requirements for individuals who have substantial contact with children or other vulnerable individuals (dependent elderly or individuals with disabilities). Every nonprofit should determine if licensing or regulatory agencies have identified specific offenses that would disqualify applicants for some assignments.
For positions that require substantial direct contact with children or other vulnerable populations, personal safety concerns are paramount. Therefore, the focal points of criminal history record checks for these positions are crimes against persons.
Youth-serving organizations generally agree that individuals should be permanently disqualified from holding positions that require substantial contact with children if their criminal records include any of the following:
- Past history of sexual abuse of children
- Conviction for any crime in which children were involved
- History of any violence or sexually exploitive behavior
Offenses become relevant based upon the nature of the position. For example, assisting with health care could provide a paid or volunteer staff member with access to prescription medications that may tempt individuals with a history of drug abuse or those who recognize the potential street value of the drugs. A recent record (within the past few years) of substance abuse or drug distribution would be very relevant given the characteristics of the position in which the applicant would serve.
For positions that require substantial direct contact with children or other vulnerable populations, personal safety concerns are paramount.
The more specific a criterion is, the more useful it is for screening. Specific offenses pinpoint the areas of concern and do not unnecessarily disqualify applicants. Some organizations include broad categories of offenses in their lists of disqualifying offenses, for example, "drug-related offenses." This category encompasses everything from a single misdemeanor possession of less than an ounce of marijuana to felony racketeering. Camps may consider narrowing their categories to target specific relevant offenses committed within a defined time period.
Court decisions decree that screening criteria must be based upon convictions, not arrest information. Camps may, however, consider any arrests for which final disposition is pending. This is especially true for individuals who have charges pending for which they could be disqualified if a guilty verdict were to be rendered. For example, if an applicant was arrested for child sexual abuse and awaiting trial, the organization may disqualify the individual until the final disposition of the charge.
When establishing criteria for evaluating criminal history records, camps should consider what other factors should be taken into account. The five items listed below offer examples of circumstances an organization may consider when evaluation criminal history records. Rather than focusing on one or two of these factors, each camp should examine the totality of the record to determine if it should disqualify an applicant.
- The recency of and circumstances surrounding the conduct in question
Crimes that occurred within the past year or two may be more reliable indicators than crimes that occurred several years ago. (Keep in mind, however, that any convictions for child sexual abuse, rape, or other sexually exploitive offenses constitute an unacceptable level of risk extending throughout an individual's life.)