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Background Checks Are a Buyer-Beware Proposition

By Loren Nelson, SportsEngine, 03/16/18, 12:00PM CDT


Discounted screenings often ignore local databases that can be costly to mine for information

There’s no sense in comparing the differences in companies that offer background screenings - and how they collect their data - if there isn’t a deep-rooted conviction to keep children safe.

The room was packed. The mood was combative. The tension was palpable.

There stood Trish Sylvia facing the crowd, explaining how mandatory background screenings were going to be implemented throughout one of the nation’s largest non-profit youth sports organizations.

Trish Sylvia

“The room was so full, people were spilling out the door, and they were loaded for bear,” said Sylvia, co-founder and CEO of the National Center for Safety Initiatives (NCSI). “They were very resistant to the national office telling them they had to do something at a time when there was a lot of organizational chaos.”

As soon as Sylvia began her presentation, she knew she was in for trouble. 

“People starting yelling out, and it got a little out of hand,” she said.

Then a woman seated near the front stood up and addressed the mob.

“She said, ‘This happened to me,’ ” Sylvia said. “Tears were running down her face. She said, ‘If you don’t think this is important enough to implement, then we shouldn’t be here as an organization.’

“It silenced the room. There wasn’t another ounce of resistance.”

Sylvia said national statistics reveal that one out of every 10 children under the age of 18 will experience some form of abuse. The people who inflict that abuse sometimes are the same ones who sign up to become coaches, team managers and administrators, or volunteer to serve other prominent roles, in youth sports organizations. 

NCSI has performed thousands of criminal background checks, and those checks have produced reports on convictions for crimes as serious as homicide, kidnapping, rape and attempted rape, manslaughter, lewd acts on a child, armed robbery, unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, sodomy, murder, mayhem, manufacture/distribution of controlled substances, embezzlement, forgery, assault with a deadly weapon and battery.

Those results came back on individuals who willingly, and brazenly, submitted to a background screening with the intention of working with youth or other vulnerable populations.

“The numbers show that this is real to all of us,” Sylvia said. “Whether we know it or not, we all know people who have been abused.

NCSI, acquired by SportsEngine in March of 2017, estimates its background screening programs have saved thousands of people from harm and millions of dollars in losses to organizations.

“There hasn’t been a group I’ve spoken to in 15 years where somebody didn’t come up to me afterward and say, ‘This was real to me, this happened to me. Thank you for doing what you are doing,’ ” Sylvia said.

Still, convincing organizations why background screenings are important often is a vital first step in the process, Sylvia said. There’s no sense in comparing the differences in companies that offer background screenings -- and how they collect their data -- if there isn’t a deep-rooted conviction to keep children safe, she added.

Bargain-basement background screenings can cost as little as $5. As with any product, budget background checks are a buyer-beware proposition.

“Unfortunately, the name background check is applied to a pretty wide realm of methodologies,” Sylvia said. “One of the common myths is that a background check is a background check. We know better.”

Sally Johnson

Sally Johnson, Executive Director of the National Council of Youth Sports, was part of the initial group that founded NCSI in 2004. A year earlier, when insurance companies were threatening to drop child abuse and molestation from organizations’ insurance policies because of a lack of proper vetting of employees and volunteers, Johnson spent hundreds of hours comparing the practices of background screening vendors, interviewing more than 27 companies as part of the process.

“Yes, it is true, you only get what you pay for,” Johnson said.

Here are some key questions to ask when choosing a background screening provider:

How up-to-date is their database?

“When we did our research, we found that a background screen through one vendor might be $5 and with another vendor it might be $20 or $25,” Johnson said. “What we found is that vendors charging $5 hadn’t updated their databases in years and their searches didn’t include county courthouse searches. That costs money.”

Are local sources part of their search? 

Johnson remembers one organization paying a $2 cut-rate price for a background screen that consisted solely of reports from a national sex offender registry.

“I said, ‘Why are you paying the two dollars? It’s a free report,” she said.

Added Sylvia: “There is not one common repository in the U.S. for criminal information, one place where you can go to find everything. That’s why we apply a more layered approach to screening. We do use those multi-jurisdictional databases, but we also do local searches, county courthouses searches.”

Syliva added that NCSI uses a coverage matrix that is hundreds of pages long, breaking down the various local databases and other information resources available state by state.

Do they have an identity verification process? 

It’s not uncommon for people to provide false information about themselves to organizations for the purpose of “beating” background screens.

“We look to see that their name and date of birth is the same name and date of birth they use on their identifying documents,” Sylvia said. “It’s a process that builds on information and accuracy.”

Without those checks and balances, “It’s real easy for Thomas George to be mistake for George Thomas,” Johnson said.

Who contacts individuals flagged in background screens?

When Johnson was doing her research all those years ago, she noticed a gaping hole in services offered by even some of the best background screening providers.

When organizations were presented with results containing criminal history information, often they were left to their own devices in dealing with them.

“That became a deep concern,” Johnson said. “Should there be a hit, there needed to be a third party that the organizations could go to to help sort everything out. If there was an appeal, this same third party would assist in the handling of that.”

Do they claim 100-percent accuracy?

If so, you might want to look elsewhere. 

“There is not any search company out there that puts together a 100-percent search,” Sylvia said. 

The National Council of Youth Sports, in its Recommended Guidelines, says: "While background screening is a critical element to any hiring, certification and/or volunteer process, it is not the 'magic bullet' as it relates to safety in youth organizations. It is important to know that criminal background checks, through any source, have some limitations. Screening is simply a tool that gives us important information about an individual that may be used as part of an overall process. In addition to background screening, it is important to have comprehensive risk management policies in place. …"

In the end, purchasing a background screen mostly boils down to common sense. Do your research. Ask questions. Consult with others who have done the same. 

“Every organization should clearly know what they are getting,” Sylvia said. “I use the Oreo-cookie example. Nothing is more disappointing when you get a glass of milk and go grab a cookie, and it’s a generic sandwich cookie. It’s just not the same thing.”

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About Loren Nelson

Loren Nelson is Community Manager at SportsEngine. He is also the National Media Editor and has served in a variety of other customer facing and media roles since 2009.

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