Volunteer criminal background check deal breakers
July 17, 2012 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Volunteering with youth - criminal background check deal breakers?

I serve on the Board of a small nonprofit that uses adult volunteers to work with kids in an outdoor setting. We conduct criminal background checks on volunteers and do not accept applicants who have sexual offenses, violent crimes or crimes against children on their record. Other infractions have been a judgment call but we are working to establish a more clear policy. Where do other organizations draw the line regarding criminal records including: misdemeanors, drug possession and other non-violent offenses, etc? (I don’t even know the right terms but hopefully you can infer what I mean.) Can you point me towards resources that provide guidance or sample policies? Are there any laws that govern this? I’m in Denver, Colorado if it matters.
posted by fieldtrip to Law & Government (17 answers total)
This is absolutely a topic that needs to be discussed with an employment lawyer. One who specializes in non-profit issues should be able to point you toward some good resources and help you craft a policy that protects the kids, treats people fairly, and protects your nonprofit appropriately.
posted by zachlipton at 7:06 PM on July 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

This is something that your organization needs to take to employment counsel because it is the type of situation where what seems like common sense to the layperson frequently conflicts with the law.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:17 PM on July 17, 2012

Here is a pdf with some guidelines for working with children in Colorado.

How will the adults interact with the children? In groups? One on one? Will the adults transport the children in vehicles?

Our school board is pretty strict with background clearances. We require applicants to report not only convictions, but arrests too. No drug or alcohol related convictions in the last 7 years. Never any domestic abuse or child endangerment, neglect.

When you are considering a volunteer, ask yourself, "Would I want this person alone with my child?"
posted by JujuB at 7:22 PM on July 17, 2012

Assume that we do not have access to an employment lawyer - unless someone here knows one who will work with us pro-bono.

Volunteers will always be working with kids in groups - there will always be other volunteers (adults) around, staff from different agencies (typically 2-3) and other kids.

JuJuB - yes we ask applicants to self-report but we also run a check with CBI (Colorado Bureau of Investigation).

Inspector.Gadget: I'm not sure that there is actually a law that deals with this, that is why I am asking.
posted by fieldtrip at 7:28 PM on July 17, 2012

JuJuB: that document is regarding restrictions on employers' ability to obtain and/or use credit reports, criminal records, etc for care or care placement organizations/agencies. We don't provide child care. I know that we are able to request criminal background checks.

Thanks for the answers so far.
posted by fieldtrip at 7:34 PM on July 17, 2012

Here is a pretty good guideline from a church that uses volunteers.


Adults who have been convicted of either child sexual or physical abuse should not volunteer service in any church sponsored activity or program for children.

Criminal background checks will be conducted on all applicants to the children’s ministry at XXX Church.

Adult survivors of childhood sexual or physical abuse need the love and acceptance of this church family. Individuals who have such a history should discuss their desire to work with children with the Director of Children’s Ministries. The applicant must demonstrate that counseling has been received.

All adult volunteers working with the children are required to be members of XXX Church for a minimum of six months before volunteering under the discretion of the Director of Children’s Ministries.

Adult volunteers should observe the “Two Adult” rule. This requires that adults are never alone with children without another volunteer present or visible.

Only female workers are allowed to change diapers or take children to the restroom. Both volunteers must take the entire class to the restroom. One volunteer may enter the restroom while the other volunteer cares for the children just outside the restroom. There is no door on the restroom. The workers must stay in sight of one another.

Only approved childcare workers are allowed in the room with the children, this includes family members (except children) of the workers. Parents may step in briefly as needed.

Lights should be left on at all times when children are in the room.

Adult volunteers should immediately report any behaviors which seem abusive, inappropriate, or suspicious to the Director of Children’s Ministries.

Each door has a window for visual security. Each door has a lock, and should remain locked when not in use. The entire building is under 24 hour recorded surveillance.
posted by JujuB at 7:38 PM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure that there is actually a law that deals with this, that is why I am asking.

I can't speak to Colorado law because I only practice in New York and I am not an employment lawyer, but there are definite federal law issues that you might encounter depending on how your organization actually implements background checking and employment decisions.

Assuming that your organization require pro bono legal assistance, one place to start would be calling the state/county/city bar associations and especially getting in touch with the employment law sections or committees of said associations and asking for referrals. Local law schools may have programs in which law students (supervised by professors and/or outside practicing attorneys) do pro bono work, so you might inquire there as well.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:39 PM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

employment decisions

Substitute "volunteer opportunities", although it would be good to have a policy in place for employment decisions too.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:41 PM on July 17, 2012

Inspector.Gadget: I appreciate all of your comments and your direction on how to possibly find some pro-bono legal help. Can you give me some idea of what the "federal law issues" are that you mention? I'm trying to get some idea of where to begin researching this.

And, honestly my concern is protecting kids (though I really doubt that anything could ever happen because of the volume of adults present). If it matters, the organization has no employees. Everyone involved is a volunteer.

What I'm wondering is if I can get my hands on a large national youth organization's policy (ie. a Campfire, Special Olympics, or Big Brothers Big Sisters, etc who have attorneys) policy....why couldn't we just use that?
posted by fieldtrip at 7:52 PM on July 17, 2012

JuJuB: that sample is more along the lines of what I'm looking for. Thanks.
posted by fieldtrip at 7:53 PM on July 17, 2012

Have you started by checking with local school districts, boy and girl scout organizations, big brothers/big sisters, etc., and asking what they do? Our HR people and business manager at my school district can basically recite the disqualifying conditions off the tops of their heads for teachers, bus drivers, secretaries, everybody. (Like, I think it's no drug convictions within 5 years for most positions but longer for bus drivers. My state's pretty strict on firearms infractions, too, for people working around children.) They're generally happy to have a discussion with other organizations comparing guidelines. (Call like this week, though; back to school ramps up super-soon, and then you'll have to wait until October to get a non-essential meeting set!)

"Public exposure" is one of our problem situations, because it shows up as a sex offense, but most of it is "peed on a building while drunk at age 19" or "had sex in park at 3 a.m. with spouse." These are not good life decisions but don't really put kids at risk (when that's the sole offense and it was some years ago).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:04 PM on July 17, 2012

fieldtrip, you might start here. I don't mean to imply that the situation is all negative for your organization as far as what the law permits you to do (far from it), but in addition to questions specific to background checks, your organization may well desire advice on what constitutes a defensible screening policy for purposes of reducing risk from negligence suits.

As I mentioned, I don't do a lot of employment law and I don't practice in Colorado (and of course I am not your organization's lawyer and I am not providing legal advice tailored to the details of your organization's situation), but a big part of managing risk is identifying potential risks out of the gate.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:04 PM on July 17, 2012

When i ran the volunteer program at a social service agency in canada, my policy was just to turn away anybody who had any kind of record. Don't know if that's legal or discriminatory, but we had the right to reject volunteer applicants for any reason (much like when you're hiring for a paid job), and i figured - why take a risk when there's plenty of people without criminal records who want to volunteer?
posted by Kololo at 8:06 PM on July 17, 2012

Here is the EEOC's recent guidance document.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 1:06 AM on July 18, 2012

If you can't afford to hire or find a volunteer lawyer, definitely contact a larger reputable non-profit in the same state/city as you that has volunteers working with children like yours and ask their volunteer manager out for a nice lunch at a decent restaurant and then ask for a copy of their internal background check policy. No point reinventing the wheel if someone else has already done it. Some organisations won't share internal documents, but most will be happy to do so to a smaller organisation, especially operations type policies.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:30 AM on July 18, 2012

I am a multiple X felon. 8 of them, to be specific, but my most recent background check shows 9. Super. They happened when I was 18, I wasn't actually convicted until I was 20, and I'm 32 now. Since I was 19 I have been working with non-profits-exclusively, and often for child-specific ones. I have also worked in schools, however I cannot be a teacher except in a private school setting.

My felonies are non-violent (B&E), and have not prevented me from working in behavioral health care settings. The only time it was an issue was when my probation officer refused to write a letter stating she didn't think I was a risk.

It HAS prevented me from working retail, although I have previously managed two different 10,000sf2 retail operations for a national nonprofit.

My point in sharing this is that you shouldn't automatically exclude. I am going to begin applying for more federal jobs now, as the window on most of those is 7 years.

Just a perspective from the other side. Please feel free to memail me.
posted by TomMelee at 10:08 AM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to work at a behavioral health treatment center with a youth section. So I can guide you to a potential lead.

For licensed Colorado childcare facilities of all kinds, employees must be fingerprinted. I understand that you are not licensed, but maybe you would want to follow their same policies. The problem of course seems that while there is much information on the policy but I couldn't find anything on the specifics of what is allowed/not allowed. Maybe call their contact people to discuss? Here is the link. Just a thought.
posted by Kitty Cornered at 11:07 AM on July 18, 2012

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