By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor
It may be an aberration of human logic. Sometimes it's a question of inadequate funding.
Whatever the reasons, there are still a sizable number of nonprofit organizations in the United States that aren't conducting adequate screening of volunteer members and service providers for the risks they could present to children and other vulnerable populations like the elderly.
The issue was brought to greater clarity earlier this year when the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Victims of Crime released a study with some disturbing nuggets of information. To whit: One in four nonprofit organizations does not call references for potential volunteers, and 27 percent do not conduct any kind of background check.
The risk remains greatest for religious organizations. In 2006, according to the center, 61 million people nationally volunteered through or for an organization, and the largest users of volunteers by percentage (35 percent) were religious organizations.
For risk managers of nonprofit organizations, the center's data is worth noting for several reasons. An important one is that there is no difference in the degree of legal liability between an employee of a company or corporation and a volunteer with a nonprofit when it comes to liability tort law.
"Under most laws, if you are going to put a vulnerable child or a vulnerable adult in contact with someone, you better have done their background," says Jack McCalmon, the founder of the Tulsa, Okla.,-based McCalmon Group and a partner in the law firm of Titus, Hillis, Reynolds, Love, Dickman and McCalmon.
But McCalmon and anyone else conversant with the issue will tell you that, while the topic of background checks for volunteers is cut and dry from an insurance carrier's perspective (to an underwriter, after all, a risk is a risk and a liability is a liability, and both need to be controlled or managed, period), it gets a lot more complicated than that on the ground.
RESIGNATIONS EN MASSE
Take the case of the Episcopalian St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. The cathedral, a beautiful structure, is one of the largest houses of worship on the planet, at least in terms of square footage.
It is also a place where 45, or about 25 percent of the church's volunteers forfeited or resigned their service positions in the church this spring and summer over a disagreement in how the church is implementing background checks.
The issue? Volunteers, long-term and short timers alike, objected to the way the church introduced a new policy that would require all volunteers to submit their Social Security numbers and birthdates for the purpose of a background check. Suspicions that the diocese was on a witch hunt and concerns over the secure storage of such sensitive data led the list of concerns.
"My question was, all right, who is going to see this? What are the security protocols going to be just for things like handing over your Social Security number?" says Jon Aceto, a St. John the Divine acolyte who had served with the church for the past three years but resigned his position in protest on July 1.
According to experts, Aceto is typical of the type of volunteer who might question the need for a background check. He is an educated person, well aware of his civil rights and one who wants to engage in or be engaged in a dialogue with the powers that be about why the background check is being done and what's going to be done with the information that is gathered.
A volunteer like Aceto, and those who have provided even longer service, can be some of the most difficult people to convince that background checks are necessary and aren't bent on signaling someone out for public condemnation or, worse, based on their past behavior, according to experts.
"You've got people who have been teaching Sunday school or doing volunteer work for 25 years, and they say, 'Why do I have to do that now? I've been doing this for 25 years,' " says Rick Dangel, the president and CEO of the Arlington, Texas-based Praesidium Group, an abuse risk management consulting firm.
"That is probably the most difficult scenario," says Dangel.
But there are ways to handle such reactions, according to Dangel and others. One way to skin that cat is to make background checks mandatory for all new volunteers going forward and conduct testing for more veteran volunteers going backward in shifts.
Check volunteers with one to five years' experience in the first year, for example, volunteers with five to 10 years' experience the second year and so on.
That method also has the added benefit of managing the costs of conducting background checks, costs that can be prohibitively expensive for some organizations.
Another method is to get the leadership of a church or other nonprofit organization to set the tone by volunteering to be the first person checked or fingerprinted. That way it looks like everyone is being subjected to the same process and you avoid the "witchhunt" label.
That's what the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami did, according to Mary Ross Augusta, its director of communications and safe environment.
Ross said the archdiocese several years ago placed a picture of Archbishop John C. Favarola submitting to fingerprinting on the cover of the diocesan newsletter as a way to set the tone for employees and parishioners.
"We are very clear from the get-go. This is what we are doing. Nobody is excused. If he is doing it, everybody else is expected to do it," says Augusta.
JUST PART OF THE EQUATION
A perspective that's important to maintain is that background checks are only one piece of the screen that nonprofits and others can use for volunteers and employees to make sure that they don't present a danger to vulnerable populations.
Jeff Chasen, the chief operating officer for the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Agos Group LLC, a consulting company that operates the Washington, D.C.-based National Catholic Risk Retention Group's Virtus child protection program, says criminal background checks aren't reliable or comprehensive enough to serve as the sole bulwark against a potential transgressor anyway.
"It's important to remember that background checks are really only one component of overall background screening, and that includes reference checking and other forms of evaluation, supervision and all of those things if they are taken as part of a whole process," says Chasen.
That more comprehensive approach is how a nonprofit risk manager can manage the process so that longer-term volunteers don't feel like their years of service are being trodden upon or disregarded.
For volunteers that have been with the institution for a long time, the feedback provided by a professional supervisor of volunteers can be just as valuable as a background or reference check.
"It's really not lesser in terms of what is necessary or beneficial. It's lesser in terms of what is burdensome or investigative, but that's legitimate because you don't need a reference check. You can go to the supervisor of that volunteer and say, 'How does Pat do with that, or 'How does Jack do with that,' and they can say, 'Great,' or they can say, 'I've got a concern,' " says Chasen.
For his part, the Very Reverend Doctor James Kowalski, dean of the Cathedral of St. John, says if he had it to do over again he would have done a few things differently.
"I would have been more organized and more strategic. I would have formalized a policy first. I would have discussed it with people and had something to put before them in writing."
But he also knows now as he did then that checking the backgrounds of all volunteers, no matter how long they had been with the church, was proper.
"It won't guarantee preventing misconduct or abuse but it helps, it is the right thing to do," says Kowalski.
As it was, when church administrators, who thought they had adequately communicated their intent and the reasons for it, handed out forms to volunteers during the Christmas season seeking Social Security numbers and clearance for a criminal background check, they faced something of a rebellion.
"If I had it to do over again it would be a no-brainer that we wouldn't do that," says Kowalski.
Clearly, as any risk manager or anyone who cares for the safety of children would agree, the impulse on the part of New York's Episcopalian hierarchy to conduct background checks on volunteers was not misguided. But perhaps what other nonprofit risk managers can learn from the experience at St. John the Divine is that clear communication of an organization's risk management goals and the creation of buy-in from volunteers or employees can make the difference between a team approach to risk management and one that becomes fractious or, worse, rancorous.
"What we've found in terms of how to calm that resistance, if you educate people on the rationale and if you do it wisely--in other words if you do it when it is necessary and don't do it when it is not necessary and you've got a clear criteria that you can explain to people--then for the most part, you know, we still get a little bit of push back, but not much," says Praesidium's Dangel.
And to be fair, St. John the Divine isn't the only religious organization in New York or elsewhere that has stood face to face with resistance when it came time to round up the volunteers and take stock of them.
Sister Patricia Hudson, the director of the safe environment office for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, says she remembers well what happened a few years ago when her diocese faced a roomful of angry athletic coaches when it tried to roll out a plan to implement background checks and awareness training for volunteers and employees.
"The director of athletics was leading the charge about not getting them done. I went to the meeting with the pastor and I tapped him (the athletic director) on the shoulder and said, 'Can I speak to you for a minute?' " Sister Pat recalls.
"I want you to just think about this for a minute," she recalls saying. "If you knew every time you dropped your child off that every person in the room and outside the room, if you knew every one of them had signed something that said I will never hurt a child and if they had also attended awareness training, would you feel better about it or would you feel better if that didn't happen?"
October 1, 2008
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