QMAP Resource Corner: Criminal Background Check Resources

September 12, 2013

The Quality Mentoring Assessment Path (QMAP®) process offers MPM insights about challenges mentoring program staff face in managing day-to-day program functions. Based on QMAP assessments of Minnesota mentoring programs in 2012, one area that is confusing for programs to navigate is conducting criminal background checks on potential volunteers. Mentoring program staff indicated that this was of the top 10 areas in which they needed more support when assessing their programs using QMAP.

Criminal background checks are one part of a holistic mentor screening process that also includes written applications, in-person interviews, character references and pre-match training. All of these elements should work together to provide you with a consistent, coherent picture of a person who is ready to become a responsible, reliable volunteer for your program. Background checks play a more obvious gate-keeping function than some of these other pieces, as they serve to identify people who clearly would not be a good fit for a mentoring role. Many mentoring program staff members, used to a very low “hit rate” when checking potential volunteers’ backgrounds for criminal records, and concerned about the time and funds spent doing background checks that seldom reveal anything, wonder if this part of the screening process is worth doing at all.

Criminal background checks may not be relevant to 99% of your potential mentors, but if they can determine that even one volunteer candidate is not suitable for your program, then they are worth doing for all applicants. While it may seem counter-intuitive that people with criminal records would try to become part of a program which they know will be checking out their past history, it does happen. If the person in question is a predator, seeking to use your program to connect with a child, the consequences can be catastrophic. Think of this process as the last screen for your mentors – the final check to your holistic process – and as a litmus test of whether a potential volunteer has been open with you during the screening process. If a criminal record is revealed through a background check that was not shared by the volunteer, you have information about the applicant’s integrity as well as their criminal history.

Your program’s policies about accepting volunteers with a criminal record do not have to be based on zero tolerance if that is not right for your program. Some highly effective mentors have had brushes with the criminal justice system. What makes them strong mentors is their acknowledgement of past mistakes and their willingness to work on making positive changes in their lives; exactly the kind of role models that many young people need. Your program can decide where to draw the line on accepting volunteers with past criminal records and under what conditions, such as specified time since an offense or additional references from someone familiar with the circumstances of the applicant’s past behavior.

Many programs struggle with how to understand and tap into the background check process. The system may seem complicated, but there are access points built into it for people who share our mission of protecting children. To learn more about how to conduct criminal record checks, visit the Criminal Background Screening Resources page on the MPM website. You will find a step-by-step explanation of how to access this process on the state level and on the federal level, as well as a comparison of services and costs offered by several commercial screening services. To check whether a volunteer candidate’s name appears on registries of predatory offenders, you can visit these sites:

Raising the topic of criminal background checks with volunteers you are trying to ‘sell’ your program to can seem awkward and off-putting at times, but if you frame this issue openly and clearly as part of program’s mission of keeping kids safe, you are likely to find people who share your concern. If you need of more in-depth ideas or training on this issue, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers a wide variety of resources on child safety, including the What You Need to Know About Background Screening, available for as a free download. You can also watch MPM’s website for our next Screening Applicants for Effectiveness (SAFE) training, which provides an in-depth look at the entire screening process, and was developed exclusively for youth mentoring programs. MPM staff are always ready to talk through screening issues with you, and support your work in safeguarding the young people we all care about and serve.