Learning the Limits of Background Screening

By Michael Crosby

A thorough background screening process is a critical component of any set of Safe Church practices.

The experts are unanimous on this point: social workers, lawyers, liability specialists, law enforcement, and child safety professionals all commend background screening procedures to churches and other organizations whose workers—paid and/or volunteer—interact with minors. Good practice includes contacting personal references, verifying employment history (especially when considering candidates for a paid position), and conducting a criminal records check. This last item is the focus of this article.What follows comes with a caveat: I am not an expert on criminal records databases or judicial recording procedures. My midsized Mennonite congregation in East Central Illinois recently completed a ten-year review and revision of our Safe Church Policy, prompted in part by a desire to shift the process for conducting criminal history checks for employees and potential volunteers. Our previous process utilized a database maintained by the Illinois State Police, while the new process takes advantage of an online national database curated by an independent organization endorsed by the church’s liability insurance company. This new process is simpler (i.e., electronic), less costly, and arguably more thorough. But I was surprised by what I discovered during this transition and share it here with the hope it can be helpful to others.

Criminal records checks may be the most invasive, costly, bureaucratic, and time-sucking of all Safe Church practices. They are also the least important. I do not say this to diminish the zeal and care with which your organization conducts them, only to emphasize that criminal records checks are never a substitute for other standard Safe Church practices, such as a “two-worker” rule, driving policy, and a broad commitment to cultivating a Safe Church culture of nurture and vigilance. Beware of placing too much trust in background screening.

The obvious reason is that a lack of criminal history reveals only that an individual has not yet committed an offense or has not yet been caught.

The less obvious reason is the confused status of criminal record-keeping in the U.S. The most comprehensive database is maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Apart from official FBI business, it is commonly used to screen Federal and state employees (public school teachers, for example). Federal legislation makes the FBI fingerprint database available to registered nonprofit organizations, but access is likely too costly and bureaucratically intense for most small and medium-sized churches.

Far more complex is the uneven system of state and county record-keeping. In my state of Illinois, each of 102 Illinois counties maintains its own judicial records for county court convictions, with few standard record-keeping practices. Some have converted to electronic databases; many have not. The state Department of Corrections (DOC) maintains its own electronic database. The Illinois state Bureau of Investigation (BOI), a separate law enforcement agency, maintains a state-wide criminal records database, the contents of which are available to the public. Until very recently, my church utilized the Illinois BOI database to conduct criminal records checks for paid employees (via fingerprint) and volunteers (via name and state ID/driver’s license numbers). 

Each of these databases overlap with each other, and cross-reporting is expected but uneven. The BOI casts the broadest net, but many fish still swim past it. It is unclear, for example, whether the BOI database collects any conviction records outside the state of Illinois. My church is near the campus of a Big 10 university and sees lots of turnover among active participants. Many have no previous residence in Illinois, and it’s unclear what, if any, convictions from prior states would be revealed by an Illinois state background check.

The state also maintains several conviction-specific Internet databases. Essential for our church’s background screening process is the state’s “Sex Offender Information Registration” database, which shows photos and current addresses of all registered sex offenders (at least those who cooperate with the State Police by reporting current information). There is also a “National Sex Offender Registry” website, which may or may not include the same information as the state site. As if that was not complicated enough, the Illinois State Police also operates sites for “Illinois Missing Sex Offenders,” “Murder & Violent Offender Against Youth Registry,” and “Convicted Methamphetamine Manufacturer Registry.” And what about Department of Motor Vehicle Records? Do you really want an adult with a DUI record driving youth around? Depending on the circumstances, a DUI may or may not present itself on standard criminal records checks.

This only describes the state of Illinois. Other states are similarly uneven at both the state and county level. The new electronic criminal records check system adopted by my church is a national database curated by a third-party private organization. They offer a dizzying array of search options, from manual county courthouse searches (their people will manually collect records at all counties of residence associated with a Social Security Number) to regional, state, and national searches, with or without driving records, employment history verification, and/or state or national sex offender registry checks. When I inquired about what databases feed into their primary national search, the company was reluctant to share the sources of their proprietary database. When they did, it became obvious that it’s a patchwork of state and county records, based largely on which states and counties have sufficiently capable electronic record-keeping practices. It is still the most thorough national search I know of (apart from the FBI fingerprint database), but the gaps are painfully evident.

Are you dizzy yet? My point is not to confuse and certainly not to dissuade anyone from rigorous background screening. Nor do I imagine that every church must grasp the complexities of this system in order to take advantage of a good screening process. (I wish I could unlearn some of these extraneous details.) But it is important to understand the limits of background screening in order to know that even the most thorough criminal records check is not a substitute for other best practices. I began by saying that thorough background screening is a critical component of any set of Safe Church practices, and that is how I will end.

Practice good screening, but don’t get lost in it. A church’s vulnerable young ones are safer when a church commits to a broad Safe Church vision: promoting healthy conversation; ending negative impulses like silence and shame; practicing vigilance; embracing community responsibility and individual accountability; and, of course, implementing thorough safeguards to protect everyone in the congregation.

Michael Crosby is associate pastor of Christian Formation and Family Ministry at First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Take a look at their newly revised Safe Church Policy.