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Revealing facts you wouldn't volunteer

Even if you perform a public service without pay, agencies may do a background check. But who controls the data?

September 16, 2007|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Background checks have become so pervasive in the work world that you might as well count on undergoing one if you're a candidate for a big job.

And as some employees of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently found out, a background check might be required even if you've been on a job for decades.

But what if, outside of work, you volunteer to mentor students, teach Sunday school, take residents of a senior center on outings or referee amateur hockey games?

If you volunteer for any activity involving kids, the disabled or the elderly, the chances are growing that someone will be taking a tour through your past.

In the wake of national shock over sexual scandals and violence involving public and nonprofit institutions, volunteering increasingly triggers background checks.

"It's definitely a growth area," said Les Rosen, president of Employment Screening Resources, a Northern California company that performs background checks. "There might not be a law or rule that says organizations have to do it, but it's seen as part of due diligence."

Protests against background checks have been increasing along with their use. Last month, 28 JPL scientists filed suit in federal court to block a Bush administration directive that would require new, sweeping background checks.

"The thing that disturbed me is that we have to give them permission to look into anything they want to," said Susan Paradise, a software engineer who has been with JPL for 22 years.

But even longtime privacy advocates, such as the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, say background checks may be proper for volunteer groups.

"If it's a volunteer who will be working with children, then in those cases it could be appropriate to do a criminal record checks," said Beth Givens, director of the San Diego-based organization.

However, there are special problems when it comes to volunteer groups and privacy. A major company can be expected to have reliable procedures for keeping personal information private, but volunteer organizations might be unprepared to deal with documents that spell out criminal records, however minor, or that detail divorces, bankruptcies, civil lawsuits and the like.

"This could be an organization with an office in someone's basement," Givens said. "Or your records could end up rattling around in a box in the coach's trunk."

Not only could this information be sensitive, it could also be useful to identity thieves -- especially if it includes a Social Security number, age and birth date.

Protecting that information has become a part-time crusade for Steve Edwards, who last month was told he would have to undergo a background check to continue his work with amateur hockey, which he's been involved with for nearly 25 years.

"I started actively with a kids association in 1983 in Alaska, " said Edwards, 60, a senior policy advisor for the Justice Department. Back then he had a son starting in the sport. "I was coaching the Mites," he said. "That's the group for kids 8 years old and up."

Edwards, who now lives in the Washington area, strongly believes that background checks are a good idea for adults working with children in sports. He knows how important it can be, partly from personal experience.

"When I first got into coaching back in Alaska," he said, "there was a coach in the association that was charged with abusing kids. He went to prison."

Currently, Edwards is technically not a volunteer in the field. He gets paid a small fee to referee games from the college level down to the Mites. But that doesn't keep him from getting involved in the issue.

The information from the hockey organization's background checks is supposed to go to a designated screener who has volunteered for the task.

"I know him, and he is a very good guy," Edwards said.

But it's the nature of volunteer groups to have high turnover.

"Who comes after him?" Edwards asked. "How long is that information going to be around? Who will have access to it?"

And what happens if there is a leak, leading to identity theft?

"Are we covered?" he wanted to know. "Is the screener covered?"

Edwards has to wait a while longer to get the answers. The implementation of background checks has been put off until next year.

"There should be specific guidelines," he said.

Organizations haven't been doing background checks on volunteers for long, so many of these questions have yet to be addressed.

"We first started hearing from volunteer organizations in about 2000," said Rosen, who was founding director of the National Assn. of Professional Background Screeners. "There had been a shift in the national consciousness."

The shift, he said, was largely caused by the ever-increasing awareness of sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church as well as secular organizations.

A scandal could crush an organization by bringing gifts and grants to a near halt. And a group could be subject to big lawsuits if found lax in regard to its volunteers.

Still, organizations that relied on volunteers at first resisted background checks.

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