Background Checks

The importance of screening volunteers

Responsible mentoring programs need to incorporate a number of important program elements and policies in order to promote safe, effective mentoring relationships.  MENTOR’s updated Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ is geared toward helping these programs achieve their goals.  The Elements includes measures any mentoring program can implement to offer the best mentoring possible – mentoring that does everything in its power to help young people and keep them from harm’s way.  These guidelines are based on solid research that affirms the importance of accountability and responsibility in meeting young people’s needs.

The Elements is available for download here.

Generic Mentoring Program Policy and Procedure Manual is available for download here.

It is essential that mentoring programs screen all volunteers.

Your organization is ultimately responsible for screening mentors and placing them in the most suitable roles. Not every individual you recruit as a prospective mentor will be suited to become a mentor. Careful screening improves the quality of your mentors and helps ensure the safety of the youth in your program, while also managing your organization’s level of risk and liability.

  • Volunteer screening helps to retain individuals who have the sensitivity, commitment and sense of responsibility to be great mentors, and to screen out those who may potentially harm children.
  • Most prospective volunteers are honest and trustworthy individuals. But, criminal predators have been known to use positions in service organizations to establish contact with their victims.

Criminal background checks are critical, but should be only one part of a comprehensive volunteer screening process. A robust system of reference checks and interviews of potential volunteers, evaluation of risk and ongoing monitoring should also be part of your organization’s regular practice.

Below are some useful resources for screening volunteers.

Access the National Sex Offender Public website and your state’s Sex Offender Registry to conduct free name-based searches.


Assessing Your Program’s Level of Risk

You will likely need to assess the potential level of risk in your program to determine what screening procedures you will use. High-risk programs will need more rigorous screening procedures. In general, the less a program supervises mentor-mentee interaction, the higher the risk. For example, a one-to-one mentoring program that allows mentors and mentees to do activities on their own is higher risk than a school-based group mentoring program that is always supervised by a program staff person.

Here is a useful webpage from the Nonprofit Risk Management Center.

Screening Tools

Based on your program’s level of risk, you should craft the screening procedures your program will use. Some possibilities are included below. (Bolded items are basic screening elements for mentoring and should be part of your screening process.)

  • A written application for all prospective mentors, which explores their interest in and qualifications for taking part in your program
  • A personal interview exploring the prospective mentor’s work history and relevant experience, special interests, reasons for wanting to be a mentor, past experience with children, and any potential concerns about the mentoring experience
  • Reference checks of at least three personal and/or business references
  • A criminal background check (See section 3.3 of the Elements for more information about the types of background checks that are available)
  • Other possible background checks, where available, including a child-abuse registry check, a sex-offender registry check, a driver’s license check, etc.
  • A psychological evaluation
  • A home visit

Informing Prospective Volunteers

Whatever screening tools you choose, always make sure from the start that prospective volunteers know what you require of them. Have a written checklist that you present to volunteers detailing each of the steps they will need to go through. Often, simply having a thorough screening process in place, including a criminal background check, can act as a deterrent against those individuals who may wish to harm a child.

Some prospective volunteers may seem very eager to join your program, but never complete your screening process. There are many reasons why a volunteer might decide not to mentor. Perhaps they are too busy to fill out the forms; they may have decided that mentoring was not right for them; or they may be embarrassed about having a criminal record. Regardless of the reason, every volunteer should complete every one of your screening tools successfully to be considered for your program.

Criminal Record Policies

When setting your guidelines for examining a criminal record, you should set out what criteria will or will not disqualify a prospective mentor. Perhaps your program does not wish to use any volunteer with any criminal record whatsoever. Perhaps you are willing to consider the factors surrounding the conviction – such as how long ago the crime took place, the nature of the crime, whether the individual is a repeat offender and more.

Each mentoring program will have different guidelines depending on who they are serving and why. For example, a program that works on gang prevention may have mentors who are ex-gang members. Therefore, that program may accept volunteers with a more serious criminal record than other mentoring programs would consider accepting.

Documenting Policies and Decisions

Whatever decisions you make for your program, make certain that you document them in your written screening policies. Also, make sure your volunteer coordinators document the reasons why a volunteer was accepted or disqualified. This documentation helps verify that your program followed your written screening policies on each prospective volunteer.

A mentoring organization ultimately bears full responsibility for the screening of mentors and the placement of mentors in the most suitable roles.

The criminal background check system in this country today is complicated. Each state is the “gatekeeper” for background checks – they decide who can access background checks and for what purpose. Each state sets its own laws on background checks, which means there is no consistency from state to state on eligibility, process, cost and turnaround time. In many states, the most thorough types of background checks may not be accessible at all to mentoring organizations. Because of these limits, private vendors have sprung up to provide access to background checks as well.

It can be very confusing to sort through the types of background checks that are available and decide what is best. There are several different kinds of criminal background checks available today, each with pros and cons. Below you will find information on things to consider when selecting the background check your organization will use. There is no single criminal database in this country that includes every criminal record, so there is no one “perfect” background check. Because of this, many organizations use a combination of two or three types of checks to get the most complete information.

Fingerprint-based vs. Name-based

A name-based check uses a person’s name and Social Security number to match any possible criminal records. There are several weaknesses with a name-based check:

  • The volunteer could provide you with a false name and Social Security number. Over 1% of the 45 million individuals in the FBI criminal database have used over 100 aliases and false Social Security numbers.
  • Volunteers may have two or more different last names if they have been married one or more times.  If you only check their current name, you can miss criminal records.
  • Criminal databases can have mistakes in the spelling of an individual’s name and other relevant information. A name-based check might miss a criminal record if the record itself has mistakes.
  • Due to common names, you can get “false positives” – in other words, your volunteer appears to have a criminal record, but the crimes were actually committed by another individual with the same or similar name.

A fingerprint-based check is the only way to verify a person’s identity and to ensure that the criminal records found are for the right person.

Convictions vs. Arrests

One of the imperfections with criminal databases is that, often, an arrest will be recorded, but the courts or police do not update that arrest record with the ultimate result. Without that update, we don’t know if the individual was convicted, had the charges dropped or was found not guilty. These incomplete records are often called “open arrests.” Some types of background checks only access convictions. When that happens, you are missing any of those open arrests and run the risk of using a volunteer with an arrest record. Make sure you always know whether arrests are included in the criminal background check you are performing.

County/Local Checks

Background checks of a county or local jurisdiction can be obtained through the local police department. These checks include only the crimes committed within that jurisdiction. Conducting a county search is better than doing no background check at all, but there are many weaknesses.f

People are very mobile in today’s society. Not only do they move around a lot, but many people also work in a different county than where they live. In metropolitan areas with multiple counties in a small area, an individual may pass through three or four counties in the course of a day’s activities. People take vacations and business trips or serve military duty in different counties and states than where they live. Plus, if you check the counties where your volunteer has lived over the past 3-5 years, you are relying on the volunteer to be truthful about their past residences.

Use county or local searches with caution because you will miss any criminal offenses committed in other jurisdictions.

State Background Checks

These background checks are obtained through a state agency (which agency varies from state to state). These checks include only the crimes committed within that state, so the same limitations in a county check also apply to a state check. The costs and response times vary widely from state to state. Some states allow fingerprint-based checks, some only allow name-based checks and some offer both types for different fees. Most state checks also include arrests, but a few include only convictions.

Many mentoring programs conduct other types of checks to supplement their criminal background checks. Examples include:

  • Driver’s license check: This would catch any tickets, citations, or convictions related to poor driving, including DUIs.
  • Sex offender registries: Most states now have sex offender registries available online, which means it is fairly easy to search several states for an individual. There is also a new national sex offender registry that aggregates all state registries. Crimes that would cause an individual to be on a sex offender registry should show up in an FBI criminal background check, but this is a good “double check.”
  • National registry
  • List of state registries
  • Child abuse registries: A few states will allow organizations that work with children to check an individual against the child abuse registry. These databases often include complaints of abuse that never result in arrest or prosecution and so would not be in a criminal database. Try contacting your state’s department of child welfare to see if the child abuse registry is accessible.