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Groups Expanding Background Checks, New York Times August 2005

Published: August 4, 2005

 

Volunteering and working for an organization that serves children often means consenting to an extensive background check.

 

Now that examination just keeps going -- and going.

 

Several Boys & Girls Clubs have begun using a technology that provides continuing updates on criminal convictions among staff members and volunteers. The clubs say concerns about children's safety outweigh any potential invasion of privacy.

 

The Boy Scouts of America is considering whether to use a similar technology, a spokesman, Greg Shields, said.

 

Nonprofit groups that work with children have been searching for better ways to screen adults, especially after the pedophilia scandals rocked the Roman Catholic Church, frightened parents and drove up the cost of liability insurance.

 

Several groups said the new idea was intriguing.

 

''If it means faster, better access to criminal records, I'd certainly want to hear about it,'' Brian Hassett, president of Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Central Arizona, said. ''You have a real need to know who your volunteers and staff are when you deal with children.''

 

Verified Person of New York, the company supplying the information to about 15 Boys & Girls Club organizations, has collected more than 70 percent of all felony and misdemeanor convictions from federal, state and county courthouses and continuously updates its database, significantly enlarging the scope of information available and the ease of looking it up.

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'It also captures anyone who's had a charge brought against them, though we only report those individuals who've been convicted, to allow for the mentality that people are innocent until proven guilty,'' said Tal Moise, who founded Verified Person with John Sculley, former chief executive of Apple Computer.

 

Civil rights experts say the collection and widespread commercial distribution of such information raises hard questions. Are all crimes relevant? Should age at the time of conviction be considered? How much time must pass before a conviction is discounted or ignored? To whom should it be made available?

 

How important, for instance, is the knowledge that someone who is applying to volunteer to mentor a child was convicted for shoplifting 35 years ago, when she was 19?

 

''The real point is that all this is happening without rules and boundaries and thought and legislation,'' said Ira Glasser, president of the Drug Policy Alliance and former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. ''The information is now so unlimited and so discretionary, and the privacy issues spring from that lack of boundaries.''

 

Mr. Hassett and other executives at nonprofit groups acknowledged the privacy questions but said concerns about child safety outweighed them. The system allows clients, whether corporations or charities, to specify what criminal infractions they would like to track and how often they would like to be notified.

 

Sonya D. van Norden, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Stamford, Conn., said that if the system produced a record of criminal activity, an applicant would be asked for greater detail and would, in some cases, be allowed to volunteer or work at the club anyway. Any record of sexual or drug abuse, however, immediately disqualifies an applicant.

 

''The most important thing,'' Ms. van Norden said, ''is to protect our members, and the sooner you find out something that might not be in their best interests, the better.''

 

For that reason, Mr. Glasser expressed concern about the potential effects on participation by members of minorities. A report in 2001 from the Sentencing Project said African-Americans made up 13 percent of the drug-using population but 35 percent of the people arrested in drug crimes and 53 percent of those convicted of such crimes.

 

While keeping drug offenders away from children is laudable, the statistics suggest that the effects may not be equitable.

 

''If this becomes a permanent barrier to employment and volunteering because of the use of this technology, then you're locking in the racial discrimination already in the system and multiplying its effect to a devastating degree,'' Mr. Glasser said.

 

Along with privacy concerns, some groups wonder how helpful the additional information will be.

 

A spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of America, Ellen Christie, said that her group's volunteers were never allowed to be alone with children, so its conventional background checks were probably adequate.

 

''We have very stringent rules about how many adult volunteers, staff and so forth need to be with what number of kids,'' Ms. Christie said.

 

Privacy advocates said the technology was no guarantee against problems and could create a false sense of security.

 

''You're always going to miss information,'' Beth Givens, founder and director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said. ''And there will always be individuals who don't have criminal records who will nonetheless present problems.''

 

Ms. Givens noted that certain convictions could be expunged after a period of time and that such technology would circumvent the lawful processes that let people clear their names. ''There will be this black mark against them,'' she said.

 

The system will pick up far more convictions because it checks records nationally, rather than just by county or state, as many past searches have. And that is a big improvement in an era of easy mobility, said Susan P. Crawford, a privacy expert at the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University.

 

If used properly, the technology does not create a real problem, Ms. Crawford said, adding: ''This service is no more than a speeded-up version of what already happens. So if the process of conviction was a fair one, we should not be queasy about making the results of that process available more immediately.''

 

Les Nichols, vice president of club safety and design at Boys & Girls Clubs of America, said about a third of the criminal records that turned up were from states other than the one where the applications were submitted.

 

''It can take as long as 18 months to retrieve those records,'' Mr. Nichols said, ''and that time lag works against us, particularly because we are in a business where we have a lot of seasonal staff and volunteers. The quick turnaround the technology provides is very valuable.''

 

Executives at nonprofit organizations also point out that volunteers and staff members are typically told that they will be subject to background checks when applying for a position.

 

''We do let everyone know up front that this is what we'll be doing, and if you have a problem with that, then you can decline to volunteer or be an employee here,'' said Sharon Driggers, vice president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Fort Worth.

 

Ms. Driggers's unit and the Stamford group are among roughly 15 affiliates that recently started Verified Person. Roughly one-fifth of the system customers are nonprofit organizations. The rest are corporations in the health care, retail, dating services, professional services, finance and security industries.

 

The Right One, a dating service, has been using the system to screen its customers and staff members. Its chief executive, Paul A. Falzone, said it had lowered costs and decreased the time to finish background checks.

 

Conventional background checks can be expensive and cumbersome. Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Central Arizona runs a F.B.I. check on each volunteer as well as a background check of criminal records.

 

Mr. Hassett said he asked volunteers to pay the $46 cost but worried that that discouraged some.

 

''The biggest issue, though, is that it takes a long time to get results,'' he said. ''It takes weeks, and sometimes months, to get clearances, and I've got 1,100 kids waiting for a volunteer.''

 

 

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