Background checks vary among youth organizations

Wednesday , October 31, 2012 - 8:32 AM

Isaac Wolf

Background checks on prospective staff and volunteers have become a primary defense for the Boy Scouts of America. But instead of relying on the FBI’s fingerprint-based criminal information database -- widely acknowledged as the nation’s most complete -- the organization opts for a cheaper, less-comprehensive commercial service.

No single service is considered foolproof at flagging an individual’s past misdeeds, experts in criminal justice and background-check industries say.

However, "criminal-history checks that are fingerprint-based ... are more accurate in confirming identity than name-based checks," said John Ryan, CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He explained they’re more likely to catch someone trying to slip in by using a false name.

The Boy Scouts had not responded to specific security-related questions, submitted via email, as of this writing. The Texas-based organization’s online application for adult volunteers says it contracts with information-services company LexisNexis "to provide consumer reports" compiled from public records. LexisNexis officials did not return calls for comment.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the Civil Air Patrol are among the few prominent volunteer-dependent youth organizations that uniformly use the FBI system, according to a review of guidelines posted by various groups.

A 1998 law, the Volunteers for Children Act, permitted youth-serving volunteer organizations to screen candidates with help from the FBI database. Youth groups route their requests through state police agencies, which take fingerprints and send the requests to the FBI.

Depending on state fees, the FBI background checks can run $36 to $70, the American Camp Association reported last year. LexisNexis charged $5 or less per search, its marketing materials showed in 2010.

The camp association, which has studied youth protection closely, found another deterrent to using FBI fingerprint checks. It reported the turnaround time is "widely erratic," and it’s "not uncommon for some checks to take months."

It also found that most youth groups rely on LexisNexis or similar commercial vendors for background checks, which can produce instantaneous results.

Some groups -- including the Girl Scouts of America, the YMCA and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America -- let individual affiliates decide whether to require fingerprint identification or a photo ID in screening volunteers, applications show. BBBSA will mandate getting positive identification with one method or the other starting in 2014, officials said.

Groups such as Big Brothers Big Sisters -- which emphasize one-to-one contact between mentors and children -- rely on extensive interviews and regular checks with families and volunteers. Others demand extensive character references and/or youth safety training.

Screenings will be among the issues considered beginning Thursday, when the Boy Scouts of America convenes a two-day symposium in Atlanta for nonprofit youth organizations. Its press release promises "the latest information and insight ... to keep kids safe."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com)

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