Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Background Checks and Scouting

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Like many organizations Scouting requires leaders and volunteers to go through regular background checks. This is part of Scouting's due diligence to protect our members.

From time to time I hear questions from parents and prospective volunteers about Scouting background checks, such as how well they work or what to expect from the process.

For the most part these processes operate behind the scenes and are invisible. However, when the processes don't work as expected they can create a lot of disruption or worse. Another problem is that they don't always work as people expect. This leads to perceived to failures.

Background checking is a tool with limitations. How well we understand these limitations will give us a realistic perspective and can help head off problems.

In general, there are a number of types of background checks and many of them are performed regularly:
  • Governments use background checks for security clearances. These range from simple to very complex and the checks at higher levels can be very intense and intrusive.
  • Businesses use a variety of background checks: employment history, credit, criminal, some even use checks for money laundering and financing terrorists. Criminal checks catch things like convictions. One disadvantage is that they are unlikely to turn up anything on someone who has never been caught.
  • Organizations that work with youth or the elderly need something more. It's called a Vulnerable Sector Background Check. All Scouting personnel get one every few years. These checks go beyond the criminal background checks. Exactly how far, I don't know, but I am told that it includes things other than convictions. They specifically look for pardoned sex offenders, charges without convictions, and they may include information on mental health that may be in police records. With these you have a better chance of catching someone earlier even if they don't have a prior conviction.
While there are a number of companies that provide these background checking services, both Criminal and Vulnerable Sector checks can also be arranged easily through most police departments.

One thing to understand with any kind of test of this kind is that there are three possible outcomes:
  • Accurate results.
  • False negatives.
  • False positives.
A false negative is when some gets a pass but shouldn't. Periodically checking raises the chances of correcting these. False negatives are both worrisome and hard to detect. In fact they get detected when someone gets caught and then it's discovered they were not picked up and should be. These aren't common or the media would be full of such stories. And it is important to remember this only has a chance of working if the person has had some previous problems.

A false positive is when someone gets flagged and shouldn't. These are more common. In fact you are reasonably likely to see one if you wait long enough. If it's you or even someone you know, it will be stressful. Careful handling, discretion, and sensitivity by everyone involved is required. The person flagged will have to step aside for a time until a followup check is made. That usually involves more information, a trip to a police station and possibly fingerprints. Once everything is checked out these are usually cleared up. And always, the information should be handled as extremely sensitive and rigorously protected.

I have seen a number people caught by false positives. In general, they have been caused by lack of accurate information, coincidence, or identity theft. And all worked out correctly.

There is a darker side to background checks which raises some privacy and human rights concerns. It's not always clear what other information can turn up and how that could affect both individuals and groups. When minor or unrelated history is turned up, taking a zero-tolerance policy may do more harm than good. Not only will an individual be affected, but an organization may loose a valuable person.

To sum up, Scouting background checks are going to make our youth members safer. Understanding the process and its limitations will help everyone involved to get these working as smoothly as possible and deal with the inevitable hiccups.

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