By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor
In May of 2007, a jury awarded $11.7 million to two young adults, one male and one female, who alleged that they were sexually victimized by Maiello over a three-year period between 1999 and 2002 while he was a youth minister in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
The more lurid details of the case as reported by the news media are just a Google away. You can skip the Googling and take our word for it, they're lurid.
But there are two features of the Maiello account apart from details of prurient interest that stick out as lessons for anyone trying to protect young people and avoid multimillion dollar settlements.
One was that according to court testimony, the parish priest who hired Maiello, Thomas Haggerty, hired him despite having received a negative job recommendation for him from the youth minister at a church where Maiello had served previously. The second salient feature was that Maiello attended parties in his victim's parents' home and even accompanied them on vacations to New York and Florida, all while he was molesting their daughter.
Either Maiello was very slick--and he very well could have been--or that unfortunate girl's parents were more than a little bit out of it.
Those two points illustrate that, on the part of nonprofits, there are a handful of ways to block a bad actor. One of the most important is the checking of references from previous employers or entities where an applicant has served in a volunteer capacity. The second point is that it takes an effort on the part of the entire community, especially parents, to keep their radar up in the effort to protect young people from predators.
GOOD DEEDS AND BEST PRACTICES
Now if you'll allow us to expand on that first point in the company of several experts.
In our accompanying print story involving some of the doings at the Episcopalian Church's St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, we document resistance on the part of a group of volunteers, mostly acolytes and ushers in this case, who objected to having to undergo a background check and as a result resigned their volunteer posts.
One of our sources, Kevin Trapani, the president and CEO of the Morrisville, N.C.-based specialty insurer The Redwoods Group, said he has never heard of such a large percentage of volunteers resigning over a background check. One or two, maybe, per institution, but not scads as was the case at St. John the Divine.
"There's got to be something else going on there," Trapani put it.
We may never know if St. Johns was as ham-handed in its presentation of its plan to conduct background checks as some of its former volunteers say it was. But Trapani is one of a group of experts who offer a list of ways to make sure the process goes smoothly and achieves its most important goal, the protection of young people and other vulnerable populations.
Trapani, whose company provides risk management and insurance for dozens of YMCAs and Jewish Community Centers, said one of the best ways to avoid speed bumps is to take the time and make the effort to categorize types of volunteers so that background checks meant to unearth behavior such as the sexual molestation of minors can be conducted on those volunteers who are in those kinds of exposures.
"In other words, if you are a board volunteer and you are going to have an active role, let's say in fund raising and you are going to have corporate responsibilities, it's probably important for that organization to have a pretty good sense of some level of your background, but it is probably not essential for them to run a 50-state criminal background check," Trapani said.
Once each volunteer has been properly categorized, Trapani said that makes the conversation with those who have daily or weekly contact with minors and who need to undergo criminal background checks that much more rational.
"So, once that happens and you end up having a conversation with a volunteer, what we found is that we eliminate the vast majority of the concerns on the part of the volunteer when we are able to say, 'Listen, you are working directly with kids. 100,000 kids are sexually abused every year in our society, and we and every other child-serving organization are exposed to that problem. We're not saying we suspect you in any way. We are simply saying that everybody who provides direct service to kids is going to be screened this way.' "
Another way that nonprofit organizations can make conducting background checks easier on an institutional basis is in the way that they use fingerprinting in background checks. In schools and churches, live scanning--that is, using a mobile electronic fingerprinting device about the size of a laptop computer--is becoming more and more prevalent.
But submitting to fingerprinting involves an additional commitment in time, travel, and the cost of running a criminal background check with state and federal law enforcement organizations.
Dave George, the acting director of the office of risk management for the San Francisco Unified School District, said the district is now asking that all community-based volunteers be subjected to live-scanning.
"The problem is that it is not all that easy to fingerprint. I mean where do they go to do it? So last year, the district purchased two live scanners and created a position to conduct fingerprinting."
Using loss control funds from ACE, the district's insurance carrier, George said the district will spend $18,000 on fingerprinting in the coming school year for the thousand or so volunteers who have yet to be fingerprinted.
That doesn't include the $20,000 the district has spent on live-scanning machinery and the cost of a full-time administrative assistant who is in charge of the fingerprinting and the coordination of memorandums of understanding with the various community-based organizations, whether they be parent's music or athletic clubs that interact with the district and its students or some other type of organization.
For now, George said the district plans to keep on bearing the cost of live scanning for as long as it can.
"That was part of the debate. That is, if people are going to volunteer their time, are you really going to charge them more money? So at this point, we've got the funding to pay for this for a year. We will continue to absorb the staff and the machine costs, of course. But it will become an issue of whether we start to charge then to defray the cost of the fee from the FBI."
George said for now, ACE seems committed to forwarding the necessary loss-control funds.
"I think they've been pretty open as long as we have ideas that they think are good. They've been willing to help us get through this loss control piece," he said.
Mary Ross Augusta, the director of communications and safe environment for the Archdiocese of Miami, said her organization recently began bearing the cost of fingerprinting/background checks, which can run up to $75 per person, to "lighten the financial burden for clergy, employees and volunteers."
The Redwood Group's Trapani has another method in his holster, and that is the much cheaper option of conducting a simple Social Security number check. For starters, all volunteers should fill out applications. That puts their record on paper in their own hand. Then, for just a couple of dollars, by running the applicant's Social Security number, an organization can find out each address that a person applying to volunteer for an organization lived at.
Such a check doesn't uncover criminal activity, but it can trip up an applicant who leaves out one of his or her addresses on their application to avoid alerting a potential supervisor to conduct a background check in that state. If the Social Security check turns up an address that the volunteer applicant didn't list, they have essentially lied on their application. That alone should be enough to bar them from entering the organization.
"So what we say is, it is probably a good idea for you to say to all volunteers, 'We want you to fill out an application and tell us where you have lived and the kind of work you have done and maybe the kind of volunteer work you have done so that we have a sense that the work you're going to do for us is appropriate given what your background is,' explained Trapani.
"Filling out an application that includes a few references should be absolutely appropriate for everybody volunteering for any organization. Nobody should push back on that," Trapani added.
And above all, employ adequate, professional and vigilant supervision, according to Jeff Chasen, the chief operating officer of the Tulsa, Okla.-based Agos Group, which operates the Virtus child protection program for the Washington, D.C.-based National Catholic Risk Retention Group.
"If these states and the federal government got their act together and created one unified database that was updated in a timely manner, I think we'd all be a lot more gung ho about background checks. But you've got to be careful not to rely on them as a panacea because the reality is there are many things that could be missed in many jurisdictions or internationally. So again, it is that personal supervision that is so important even if someone is squeaky clean on the background check," said Chasen.
October 1, 2008
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