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Q&A Background Checks

By: AL Irfan Consultants
2/7/2013 12:58:36 PM


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The following are some of the more frequently asked questions concerning criminal history record checks.

Q: Are we required to conduct criminal history record checks?

A: The answer to this question depends upon the nature of the services you offer and the jurisdiction in which you offer them. For most nonprofit organizations offering services to children, dependent elderly or people with disabilities, the answer is that there are no legal requirements for you to conduct criminal history record checks. The usual exceptions to this are services for which licenses are required. For example, childcare programs licensed by the state may be required to conduct criminal history record checks on their staff.

In addition to legal requirements, there may be contractual requirements for your employees and volunteers to have criminal history record checks. For example, your insurer may require criminal history record checks as a condition of your coverage for sexual molestation liability insurance. If you fail to conduct the record checks, the insurer would be able to deny molestation claims because the organization failed in its contractual obligations. Another contractual requirement may be in the usage agreement for certain kinds of facilities. For example, a sports program using a municipal park may be required by the municipality to conduct background checks of the coaches as a condition of use for the park.

Another example of a contractual requirement to conduct criminal history record checks may be found in the language of funding agencies and organizations. Funders for your organization’s services may make financial support conditional upon conducting criminal history record checks of the organization’s employees and volunteers.

Organizations should review the laws and regulations, licensing requirements, insurance policies, other contracts, and grant documents to ascertain any requirements for criminal history record checks.

Q: If we are required to conduct criminal history record checks or if our organization has adopted a policy requiring criminal history record checks, how can we obtain criminal history record checks?

A: There are two basic sources for criminal history record checks: official criminal history record repositories located in each state and private vendors. State laws and regulations govern access to records in official record repositories. State repositories are also the gateway into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) criminal history records. State repositories also maintain sex offender registries, many of which are available online to the public.

Q: Are all criminal history record checks the same?

A: Criminal history record checks are not all the same. The primary variables are whether checks are name-based or fingerprint-based. In addition, the databases used for the record checks are not the same.

Most states permit access to their criminal history records for nonprofits to screen employees and volunteers. Many states permit name-based record checks in which the identification parameters used are the individual’s name, sex, and date of birth. Some states require that fingerprints be used for identification purposes. Fingerprints are the only practical way to ensure that the person being screened and the record match. Name-based searches often result in false matches—especially for individuals who have common names. In addition name-based searches may result in individuals beating the system by giving false identifying information. All FBI criminal history record checks require submitting a complete set of readable fingerprints.

Private vendors use a combination of name, date of birth and social security number to identify search subjects. Most will include individuals in their reports with two of the three identifiers matching. Similar to the state record check this may result in a significant number of false identifications with individuals having common names. Name-based checks also yield false negatives in which individuals who should have been identified are placed in positions of trust working with vulnerable service recipients.

The scope of the record check is also determined by the method used. Checks performed by state criminal history record repositories usually are limited to offenses committed within that state. The FBI national record check includes offenses committed throughout the nation and either reported to the FBI or identified through the FBI’s new Interstate Identification Index (III) system.

Private vendors access public records—most often courthouse records—and create their own proprietary databases. The databases may be nationwide in scope but limited to those areas in which the vendor has conducted business.

Q: Is checking sex offender registries an adequate background check?

A: Checking sex offender registries is better than no record check at all, but the registries do have serious limitations. Most states have sex offender registries accessible to the public via the Internet. The theory behind sex offender registries is that individuals convicted for sex-related crimes must register each time they move and this enables law enforcement agencies and members of the public to know when a dangerous offender is in their area. Some states limit the publicly accessible list to only the most serious of all sex offenders so failure to appear on these registries would not mean that the individual is not a sex offender.

The large number of sex offenders who fail to register in a timely fashion hampers the effectiveness of sex offender registries. The quality of the information is questionable so not having information on an individual does not necessarily mean that the individual has not committed a sex related offense. Having said that, sex offender registries may be useful for supplementing state record checks as they may include individuals convicted of sex offenses in another state and who subsequently moved into the state.

The key to using sex offender registries effectively is to understand the parameters used by the state when listing offenders in its registry. Most states include this information on their Web sites.

Q: How does the federal “Fair Credit Reporting Act” apply to criminal history record checks?

A: When an organization uses a third-party vendor to conduct criminal history record checks, the resulting report is considered a “consumer report” as defined by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Under the FCRA, employers have specific responsibilities and applicants have specific rights. Briefly, these include:

• Employers must provide written notification that a background check will be performed.

• The applicants must give written permission for the record check to be performed.

• If disqualifying information is included in the report from the vendor, before you take adverse action, you must give the individual a pre-adverse action disclosure that includes a copy of the individual's consumer report and a copy of "A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act" — a document prescribed by the Federal Trade Commission. The vendor that furnishes the individual's report will give you the summary of consumer rights.

• After you've taken an adverse action, you must give the individual notice — orally, in writing, or electronically — that the action has been taken in an adverse action notice. It must include:

• the name, address, and phone number of the vendor that supplied the report;

• a statement that the vendor that supplied the report did not make the decision to take the adverse action and cannot give specific reasons for it; and

• a notice of the individual's right to dispute the accuracy or completeness of any information the agency furnished, and his or her right to an additional free consumer report from the agency upon request within 60 days.

Q: Do the provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act apply to record checks we do through a state criminal history record repository or the FBI?

A: No. The FCRA applies only to record checks performed by private third party vendors. There may be, however, similar rights and responsibilities established by other laws. For example, the National Child Protection Act (NCPA) requires that applicants give permission for the record check and allows them to challenge information received from the repositories.

Q: Should we look at both arrest and conviction records?

A: We advise only looking at convictions. In employment situations, arrest information without convictions has been found to be discriminatory. Both the NCPA and FCRA discourage using arrest information. There are some states in which a complete rap sheet that includes arrests will be returned.

Some states such as California prohibit asking questions about arrests on employment applications.

The only time that arrest information without disposition should be considered is charges for which final disposition is pending.

Q: Our organization wants to initiate criminal history record checks. What do we need to do to get started?

A: Remember that criminal history record checking is a process that yields information. The central question is how your organization is going to use the information obtained through the record checks.

After considering your employees’ and volunteers’ specific responsibilities, the organization needs to decide what offenses will disqualify applicants from positions in your organization. Most organizations permanently disqualify anyone convicted of sex-related crimes, violent crimes, and crimes in which children were involved. For other kinds of crimes such factors as the age of the individual at the time of the offense, how long ago the offense occurred, the person’s attitude about the offense, and the person’s lifestyle since the offense may be considered.

Q: Who should have access to the information we receive from criminal history record checks?

A: It is important that information received as a result of a criminal history record check be handled to preserve its confidentiality. The executive director or a staff member designated by the executive director should be the only person with access to the information. Individuals’ criminal history records should not be the topic of staff discussions beyond a limited number who have a need to know.





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