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Criminal record checks: A valuable screening tool or a barrier to volunteering?

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In 1994, the Government of Canada formally committed to address violence against women and children, releasing a report that called for, among other things, the development of guidelines and training programs for organizations within the voluntary sector. This recommendation was ultimately implemented by the sector as what is variously known as a criminal record check, police check, criminal review or criminal information check. These background checks are now often standard practice in volunteer screening, and are often required from those wishing to volunteer with nonprofits and charities.

In recent years, a number of jurisdictions across Canada have made changes to how this screening process is implemented. As such, we thought it was time to take a look at the police check as a screening tool, both to weigh its effectiveness and to consider whether it is a barrier to volunteering.

Police checks

“When an organization is designing their volunteer program and creating specific position descriptions,” says Paula Speevak, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, “they do an assessment of risk as well as evaluating the qualities and skills they are looking for. People take a narrow view of screening but it is a tool for matching as well as for mitigating risk. We need to consider it from the broader perspective – what are we looking for and what are the inherent risks — and then determine the kind of screening needed.”

Risk can vary depending on the population served, tasks and work conditions. Usually, the more access a volunteer has to vulnerable people, the higher the degree of risk management is required because organizations have a legal duty of care to take reasonable measures to care for and protect their clients and to ensure funds are managed properly. Organizations are responsible for anything done in their name, by employees, volunteers or co-op students/interns. Risk determination is generally done by an organization’s board of directors or senior leadership, but may also be directed by larger membership associations, insurance companies or even third-party groups from which a nonprofit rents space.

How a police check is conducted varies from municipality to municipality, and from province to province. While a police check may be required by an organization before someone can start volunteering, it is always initiated by the volunteer themselves by contacting the local police force — whether an RCMP detachment or a municipal or regional police force. It can also be conducted, in some cases, by approved third-party companies that work with police services. A police check involves searching local records and national police databases to determine whether the individual has previous criminal convictions.

An amendment was made to the Criminal Records Act in 2000 to create an enhanced check called the vulnerable sector check for anyone working “in a position of authority or trust” with vulnerable populations (such as children, people with disabilities, or the elderly). A vulnerable sector check includes non-conviction information — including dropped charges, distress calls to the police, and being questioned by the police.

There are also regional differences in terms of police checks: in Ontario, for instance, a new level of check between the Criminal Record Check and the Vulnerable Sector Check has been added, with nonprofits being encouraged to use this Criminal Record and Judicial Matters Check for prospective volunteers.

Barriers to volunteering?

There is no question that, as a sector, we want to do good and not harm to our clients and those our work benefits. But stories of abuse and harm have made us sadly aware that, while the vast majority of Canadian volunteers have goodwill and generosity, we can no longer simply assume that all people share that motivation.

The question, however, arises as to whether police checks and vulnerable sector checks in a screening process is a barrier for some potential good volunteers. In a 2014 article about the International Children’s Festival in St. Albert, AB, director Stephen Boudreau said they had lost five percent of their volunteers due to the requirement of a vulnerable sector check.

There are three key barriers to volunteering created by the police check process, each of which is being addressed by changes to the process in different areas of Canada.

Time and complexity: The executive director of human resources and volunteer services of Scouts Canada, Valarie Dillon, observes, “Police record checks are handled differently with every municipality across Canada, which presents a challenge to provide a consistent and good experience for our volunteers. Some municipalities and regions, like the Greater Toronto Area, often have a backlog on record checks that could be as long as three months.” Even within the same province, there can be huge differences.

The challenge is that most volunteers begin an application process with a sense of eagerness to get started. Having to wait a matter of months can result in volunteers losing interest. Depending on the role, it can also mean that some volunteer positions go unfilled and work is left undone. Because police checks generally must be requested and picked up in person, this can also present a problem in some rural areas. Joanne Michael, director of programs and operations, Alzheimer Society of Saskatchewan, says some volunteers have to drive thirty minutes to their nearest RCMP detachment - only to find the officers out on a call and the station closed.

The government of British Columbia recently made changes to its Criminal Records Review Act, allowing police checks to be done online with a remarkably quick turnaround, something welcomed by Stacy Ashton, the executive director of Community Volunteer Connections. British Columbia’s process also streamlines the process for nonprofit organizations. Where in other jurisdictions across Canada organizations have to assess for themselves the information in a police record check, in British Columbia the determination of whether or not a volunteer candidate is suitable for volunteering is actually made by the police services, according to standardized guidelines.

Cost: There is variation in the costs of police checks across the country, as well as between (and sometimes within) organizations — with some organizations offering reimbursement and others leaving the financial burden on the volunteer. These costs can deter volunteers as well as divert funding away from an organization’s primary mandate. Liz Sutherland, policy advisor at the Ontario Nonprofit Network says, “We think the cost of a police record check is a barrier to volunteers and would like to see it eliminated.”

The province of Alberta is working to lighten this load through the Volunteer Police Information Check Program. This program helps organizations prepare and apply effective screening practices, be informed of Volunteer Canada’s screening resources, and, in eligible cases, receive a subsidy for the police check for volunteers serving vulnerable populations. The program will help defray costs for individuals and organizations, enabling organizations to maximize their funding for front-line services. Other bodies across the country — such as the Ontario Nonprofit Network — are lobbying to adopt similar programs, or at least to standardize costs for volunteers within the same province.

Human rights: While the police check system was put in place to protect organizations and the populations they serve, there has been increasing recognition of the human rights principles and protections for volunteers, especially when it comes to personal privacy of information. Paula Speevak says it’s important to think about the fair use of information collected. “What does an organization do with the information when they receive it?” She adds that, “Social inclusion and not discriminating against someone who may have done something that may or may not bear on their volunteer role is a vital consideration.”

This is a particular concern for potential volunteers who may have police records or a mental health history. The volunteer coordinator of one organization that asked not to be named was conducting an initial interview with a potential volunteer who stood up to leave when the issue of police checks was mentioned — the person had had a difficult past which included a conviction for a petty crime. The volunteer coordinator quickly explained, “You don’t have to have a clean record but we need to know so we can best use your gifts and abilities without jeopardizing the security of anyone else.”

The John Howard Society, Ontario Civil Liberties Association and Ontario Nonprofit Network worked together with the LEARN Association of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) in parallel with the Canadian Mental Health Association to lobby the Ontario government to adopt a guideline laid out by the OACP that details what kinds of non-conviction information could be released and under what circumstances in a vulnerable sector check —something that has now been passed by the legislature and will be proclaimed into law later this year. Sutherland says this will eliminate the current burden on nonprofits, which have to make risk assessments themselves around information given, and have to self-monitor to ensure they are neither discriminating wrongly against potential volunteers nor putting participants at risk. A similar change was recently put in place by BC’s municipal and RCMP police forces after the province’s privacy commissioner issued a 2015 report criticizing police checks, which said that sensitive information beyond what was necessary was being released to organizations.

Are police checks even effective?

While there is very little data has been collected or is available on the effectiveness of the police check system, it is generally considered an important part of volunteer screening. At the same time, there is concern that organizations may rely on this as their sole or main form of screening. Sutherland suggests that overuse and an overreliance on record checks has driven up the cost and extended processing timelines. She adds, “Organizations need to look at how much they are using police records when it is not the only or appropriate tool.” Volunteer Alberta, who offers a subsidy that covers the costs of police checks, is working on a program to ensure organizations are using Volunteer Canada’s Screening Handbook which offers a 10-step volunteer screening process, of which police checks are only one step. Speevak encourages organizations to focus on the risks and qualities desired for specific positions rather than applying a blanket police screening policy on all volunteers.

When it comes to criminality, no tool can completely eliminate the risk. Speevak observes, “Organizations that serve vulnerable populations are themselves vulnerable in that they can be targeted by a small, rare percentage of people who want to seek out predatory opportunities.” Scouts Canada is one of the organizations that comes to mind for this. Dillon says, “The vulnerable sector check catches those who have been caught before; however it won’t track whether they have a predisposition or intention to commit a crime.” In an effort to reduce risk, Scouts Canada has undertaken a major review, “to make sure that everything we are doing is the best we can for the safety of youth.” Dillon adds, “This has become one of our priorities. We have taken something bad and are using it to try to put things in place so we will be a leader in terms of youth safety.”

Speevak advises organizations not to simply rely on police checks but to establish protective policies and to communicate these clearly to minimize the risk to participants. Organizations can also minimize risks, with many having volunteers work in groups or with buddies. The Alzheimer Society of Saskatchewan provides required professional development and regular feedback as a means for staying closely in touch with volunteers.

There’s an old joke that relates to volunteer screening: Sandy applied to coach baseball and was put through a rigorous six-month screening process including reference checks, police checks, and interviews — only to discover at the end of the process that Sandy had never played baseball. It’s vital for organizations to carefully examine their risks when considering potential volunteers, but it’s also important to remember that focusing too tightly on criminality alone can result in poor matches or missing terrific volunteers for your organization.

Additional Resources:

Volunteer Canada lists volunteer centres across the country, which are great resources as they are familiar with the latest legislation and have a working relationship with local law enforcement.

Ten Steps of Volunteer Screening

Review your screening process

FAQs about vulnerable sector checks

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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