Responsible mentoring programs need to incorporate a number of important program elements and policies in order to promote safe, effective mentoring relationships.  

MENTOR’s newly revised and updated Elements of Effective Practice are geared toward helping these programs achieve their goals.  The Elements include measures any mentoring program can implement to offer the best mentoring possible — mentoring that does everything in its power to help young people and keep them from harm’s way.  These guidelines are based on solid research that affirms the importance of accountability and responsibility in meeting young people’s needs. 

Available for download:

The Elements of Effective Practice

Generic Mentoring Program Policy and Procedure Manual

One essential element of effective mentoring practice is volunteer screening.  Your organization is ultimately responsible for screening mentors and placing them in the most suitable roles.  Not every individual you recruit as a prospective mentor will be suited to become a mentor.  Careful screening improves the quality of your mentors and helps ensure the safety of children involved in your program, while also managing your organization’s level of risk and liability.

Volunteer screening helps to retain individuals who have the sensitivity, commitment, and sense of responsibility to be great mentors, and to screen out those who may potentially harm children. 

Most prospective volunteers are honest and trustworthy individuals.  But, criminal predators have been known to use positions in service organizations to establish contact with their victims. Criminal background checks are critical, but they are only one part of a careful volunteer screening process.  Criminal background checks, alone, are not the answer — in fact, the typical child sex offender molests dozens of victims before being caught (National Institute of Mental Health study, 1998). 

A robust system of reference checks and interviews of potential volunteers, evaluation of risk, and ongoing monitoring should also be part of your organization's regular procedures.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers a number of suggestions for screening volunteers and accessing criminal background checks.

NCMEC Background Screening Suggestions

Free sex-offender name-based searches can be conducted here:

National searches -

Illinois searches -

Additional Volunteer Screening Information

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  • Assessing Your Program's Level of Risk Open or Close

    You will likely need to assess the potential level of risk in your program to determine what screening procedures you will use.  High-risk programs will need more rigorous screening procedures.  In general, the less a program supervises mentor-mentee interaction, the higher the risk.  For example, a one-to-one mentoring program that allows mentors and mentees to do activities on their own is higher risk than a school-based group mentoring program that is always supervised by a program staff person.


  • Convictions vs. Arrests Open or Close

    One of the imperfections with criminal databases is that, often, an arrest will be recorded, but the courts or police do not update that arrest record with the ultimate result. 


    Without that update, we don’t know if the individual was convicted, had the charges dropped, or was found not guilty.  These incomplete records are often called “open arrests.”


    Some types of background checks only access convictions.  When that happens, you are missing any of those open arrests, and run the risk of using a volunteer with an arrest record. 


    Make sure you always know whether or not arrests are included in the criminal background check you are performing.  


  • County / Local Checks Open or Close

    Background checks of a county or local jurisdiction can be obtained through the local police department.  These checks include only the crimes committed within that jurisdiction.  Conducting a county search is better than doing no background check at all, but there are many weaknesses.  


    People are very mobile in today’s society.  Not only do they move around a lot, but many people work in a different county than where they live.  In metropolitan areas with multiple counties in a small area, an individual may pass through three or four counties in the course of a day’s activities. 


    People take vacations and business trips or serve military duty in different counties and states than where they live.  Plus, if you check the counties where your volunteer has lived over the past 3-5 years, you are relying on the volunteer to be truthful about their past residences.  


    Use county or local searches with caution because you will miss any criminal offenses committed in other jurisdictions.  


  • Criminal Record Policies Open or Close

    When setting your guidelines for examining a criminal record you should set out what criteria will or will not disqualify a prospective mentor. 


    Perhaps your program does not wish to use any volunteer with any criminal record whatsoever.  Perhaps you are willing to consider the factors surrounding the conviction — such as how long ago the crime took place, the nature of the crime, whether or not the individual is a repeat offender, and more.   


    Each mentoring program will have different guidelines depending on who they are serving and why.  For example, a program that works on gang prevention may very well have mentors who are ex-gang members.  Therefore, that program may accept volunteers with a more serious criminal record than other mentoring programs would consider accepting.    


    The following resources on designing a criminal background check policy may prove helpful:  


    Documenting Policies and Decisions

    Again, whatever decisions you make for your program, make certain that you document them in your written screening policies.  Also make sure your volunteer coordinators document the reasons why a volunteer was accepted or disqualified.  This documentation helps verify that your program followed your written screening policies on each prospective volunteer.


    A mentoring organization ultimately bears full responsibility for the screening of mentors and the placement of mentors in the most suitable roles.  MENTOR is not in any way liable for any screening decisions that anyone in the mentoring organization makes about a volunteer’s status based on information obtained in the SafetyNET pilot.  


    The criminal background check system in this country today is complicated.  Each state is the “gatekeeper” for background checks — they decide who can access background checks and for what purpose.  Each state sets its own laws on background checks, which means there is no consistency from state to state on eligibility, process, cost, and turnaround time.  In many states, the most thorough types of background checks may not be accessible at all to mentoring organizations.  Because of these limits, private vendors have sprung up to provide access to background checks as well.  


    It can be very confusing to sort through the types of background checks that are available and decide what is the best.  There are several different kinds of criminal background checks available today, each with its own pros and cons.  Below you will find information on things to consider when selecting the background check your organization will use.  There is no single criminal database in this country that includes every criminal record, so there is no one “perfect” background check.  Because of this, many organizations use a combination of two or three types of checks to get the most complete information.


    Fingerprint-based vs. Name-based

    A name-based check uses a person’s name and Social Security number to match any possible criminal records.  There are several weaknesses with a name-based check: 


    ---The volunteer could provide you with a false name and Social Security number.  Over 1% of the 45 million individuals in the FBI criminal database have used over 100 aliases and false Social Security numbers.  


    ---Female volunteers may have two or more different last names if they have been married one or more times.  If you only check their current name, you can miss criminal records.


    ---Criminal databases can have mistakes in the spelling of an individual’s name and other relevant information.  A name-based check might miss a criminal record if the record itself has mistakes. -Due to common names, you can get “false positives” — in other words, your volunteer appears to have a criminal record, but the crimes were actually committed by another individual with the same or similar name. A fingerprint-based check is the only way to verify a person’s identity, and to ensure that the criminal records found are for the right person.

  • Informing Prospective Volunteers Open or Close

    Whatever screening tools you choose, from the start, always make sure that prospective volunteers know what you require of them.  Have a written checklist that you present to volunteers detailing each of the steps they will need to go through.  Often, simply having a thorough screening process in place, including a criminal background check, can act as a deterrent against those individuals who may wish to harm a child.  


    Some prospective volunteers may seem very eager to join your program, but never complete your screening process.  There are many reasons why a volunteer might decide not to mentor.  Perhaps they are too busy to fill out the forms; they may have decided that mentoring was not right for them; or they may be embarrassed about having a criminal record. 


    Regardless of the reason, every volunteer should complete every one of your screening tools successfully to be considered for your program.  


  • Screening Tools Open or Close

    Based on your program’s level of risk, you should craft the screening procedures your program will utilize.  Some possibilities are included below.  (Items marked with ** are generally considered basic screening elements for mentoring that should always be present in your program.)


    -A written application for all prospective mentors, which explores their interest in and qualifications for taking part in your program **

    -A personal interview exploring the prospective mentor’s work history and relevant experience, special interests, reasons for wanting to be a mentor, past experience with children, and any potential concerns about the mentoring experience  **

    -Reference checks of at least three personal and/or business references **

    -A criminal background check **  

    -Other possible background checks, where available, including a child-abuse registry check, a sex-offender registry check, a driver’s license check, etc.

    -A psychological evaluation

    -A home visit

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