Me with my lovely wife, Kathy:

Monday, May 14, 2012

If we had better background, we'd have less need for checks:

Like a great many churches and ministries we are starting to require background checks of those who work with youngsters.  A while back, when we were discussing how to proceed on this matter, I asked the group how many of them had had bckground checks done on them for Little League, Scouts, etc.  It was interesting that the response to the question divided the group almost perfecctly from an age perspective. With almost no exception, those who raised their hands were in the fifty and under demographic, while those with their hands down get a discount on their coffee at fast-food restaurants.
That chronological divide represents several changes in our culture.  Changes that we're not the better for.

We used to be people who tended to put down roots.  My grandmother, for instance, lived in the same little community for forty years.  Before she lived in Huntland Tennessee she lived in a couple of other little places not as far away as the morning commute of many moderns.  I can remember conversations on her front porch.  "You remember Joe Bob Sampson?  He married one of the Luttrel girls."  At this point in time none of the "Luttrel girls" had been girls for thirty years.  But somebody on the porch had gone to school with one of the girls, and another had sold a hog to Old Man Luttrel, etc.  Nobody needed to send out for a background check.  Checking with a couple of neighbors would yield all the information anybody needs, and more. 
That's no longer the case.

That same lack of community-stability that  keeps us from knowing about someone's past also makes it harder for us to do anything about an infraction of what is proper.  Small town justice in earlier times may have sometimes been cruel, but there was a certain effectiveness about it.  Communities knew who to watch for, who to avoid, who to warn others about, and because no one wanted to endure the humiliation associated with such contempt, it also had a preventative effect.  Families were made to feel responsible when one of their own violated community standards, so they helped reign in unacceptable behavior.  There have always been those who do terrible things, but today too many only have to be concerned about being caught by the authorities, and they can be eluded easier than family and neighbors in a close knit community. 

Unfortunately we may think that we are taking better care of our youngsters than we did in the past, by requiring things like background checks.  At this point I need to say that I'm not against responsible ways of checking on teachers and leaders.  I am in favor of doing it, but not because it is best.  It's not.  It is just the best we can do, with what we've got.  Likely you know people who have been through our latest and greatest checks.  Theyr'e reports came back A-OK, but they aren't.  Because you have personal knowledge about them you know that if the security checkers knew what you know, these folk would be sent packing.  It may not be your place to make that information known.  In fact in some cases it is your place to not make it known, but it ought to keep us from placing too much trust in the system.  Systems are poor substitutes for real communities.

Bottom line, I guess I'm glad that we are taking this step.  We ought to do all that we can to protect the children entrusted to us.  I'm just sad that we have to.


Karisa said...

Good post. Another unfortunate sign of the times is the other reason why we must do background checks: frivolous litigation. But you're absolutely right: even though it's far from a perfect system, let's do everything we can to protect our kids. Can you offer any advice on setting up a background check procedure? e.g. Does your church use a third party to perform the checks? Does the church or individual pay?

Howard Merrell said...

Thanks for your kind comment.
We are so new at this that we are just now getting started on our first round of checks.
A couple of things we found. There are a lot resources available. Some organizations will handle the whole thing for you.
We found that some folk mistrusted systems where data is stored in a web-based type system. I'm not sure if those concerns are valid i.e. if digital is inherently more open to abuse than paper, but we chose to respect it. We are renting a safety deposit box and will keep records there. Some system of security is important.
We know that what we are starting to do is inadequate, but we need to start somewhere.
We are using a standard service, the one other public agencies use in our state. If someone has been a resident of our state for a short time we will use a national service.
The church is paying.
We decided to check everyone--not grandfather (mother) anyone in.
I think the best thing we did was have a meeting or two where pretty much anyone could come and have input.
Again, thanks.

Howard Merrell said...

I apologize, Karisa. I left the "a" off your name.

Karisa said...

Very helpful; many thanks!