Scoping review: Evaluations of pre-employment screening practices for child-related work that aim to prevent child sexual abuse
Dr Sandra South PhD, Professor Aron Shlonsky PhD, Dr Robyn Mildon PhD, Ms Anastasia Pourliakas, Ms Jessica Falkiner and Mr Adrian Laughlin
Parenting Research Centre and the University of Melbourne
The aim of this scoping review was to map evaluations of pre-employment screening practices for child-related work that aim to prevent child sexual abuse. It was conducted by the Parenting Research Centre and the University of Melbourne for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This report describes the methods used to conduct the scoping review and the findings of the scoping review.
Systematic searches for existing evaluations of pre-employment screening practices for child-related work that aim to prevent child sexual abuse were conducted using an extensive list of electronic databases and websites, manually searching website publication lists (when no search engine was available) and searching the reference lists of potentially relevant studies.
Results were then synthesised across study characteristics, including the methods employed and relevant key findings, and this was followed by a narrative interpretation of findings.
Characteristics of the included evaluations
Electronic database searches located 1,464 papers after duplicates were removed. A further 186 new papers were identified through website searches, through a concurrent review of child sexual abuse prevention in out-of-home care and via reference list checks. Twenty-five of these 1,650 papers were found to be suitable for inclusion in this scoping review.
The 25 relevant evaluations were categorised into three general pragmatic categories of evaluation approaches in order to facilitate an overview of their relevance. They consisted of:
19 retrospective case studies or surveys (including six public or ministerial inquiries)
Four qualitative analyses of submissions or hearings
Two evaluations of classification tools.
The evaluations of the classification tools (category 3 above) found that tools for pre-employment screening that aimed to predict whether individual applicants would be at a high risk of committing sexual offences were neither sufficiently effective nor ethically feasible. As such, these two evaluations were not considered further in this scoping review beyond an explanation as to why such tools are unlikely to be reliable and valid.
Evaluations were conducted in Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Evaluations were located in all the countries identified at the outset of this scoping review as most relevant for the work of the Royal Commission, with the exception of Canada.
The target group (that is, the type of employment) addressed most commonly was child-related work, broadly defined. These studies addressed both paid employees and volunteers. Additional target groups included teachers and other private and public school staff, including volunteers; residential care providers or staff at children’s homes; volunteers at organisations serving children and/or youth; and foster care providers and other adults who live and/or work in these settings.
It is noteworthy that the majority of both the potentially relevant papers and the included evaluations were reports identified through website searches. Thus, the scientific discourse around these practices appears to be largely communicated through governmental and non-governmental agencies’ reports (so-called ‘grey literature’) and to a lesser degree in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Relevant key findings stated by evaluation authors
The review team compiled the findings, suggestions and recommendations of evaluation authors in each of the included studies in an effort to present a more nuanced understanding of the studies. These were not screened by the scoping review authors for methodological rigour and should be treated solely as the opinions of the authors, as stated in their evaluations.
The authors of many of the included evaluations emphasised that criminal background checks appear to be universally considered as an important component of pre-employment screening practices. However, such statements were almost never made without emphasising the limited effectiveness of using criminal background checks as the only pre-employment screening practice to safeguard children from sexual abuse by staff. Indeed, many concerns were raised regarding factors that limit the feasibility and effectiveness of criminal background checks as a safeguard protecting children from sexual abuse, including (in order of most frequently to least frequently mentioned):
Time delays in the recruitment process due to the time needed to complete a criminal background check and/or the resulting decision to employ a person before the check is complete
The costs associated with conducting criminal background checks
The risk that an applicant may have changed their name, or give a pseudonym or nickname
The need to check for criminal offences in other jurisdictions (such as international or interstate jurisdictions)
The risks posed by those exempt from mandatory criminal background checks (for example, parents who volunteer when their child is present, and other adults who share the home with the caregiver and child)
A lack of reporting, confirmation and, therefore, criminal background checks of other adults who may be living in institutions (including foster or childcare homes)
Issues related to conflicting child protection and child welfare legislation regarding the need for, and actions to be taken based on, criminal background checks
Ethical concerns regarding infringing on a person’s right to exoneration, privacy and/or rehabilitation due to sharing information about served, pardoned and quashed criminal convictions.
The pre-employment screening practices other than criminal background checks (often referred to as sources of ‘soft information’ in the literature) that evaluation authors identified as necessary components of a comprehensive pre-employment screening procedure included (in order of most frequently to least frequently mentioned):
Conducting thorough reference checks (for example, those obtained directly from previous employers by asking direct questions about any concerns regarding the applicant’s suitability to work with children)
Holding employment interviews that focus on determining the applicant’s suitability to work with children (such as value-based interviewing; for more information, see Erooga, 2009)
Checking suspected or substantiated child abuse against other sources of information, such as child-abuse registries, children’s court decisions or disciplinary body proceedings
Critically examining an applicant’s employment history and/or written application (to identify gaps in their employment history and thus clarify their cause, or to explain ambiguous responses to direct questions about criminal history)
Verifying the applicant’s identity using methods such as photo-based documents or fingerprinting
Verifying the applicant’s education or qualifications (in order to determine if they are qualified to undertake child-related work).
The need for comprehensive pre-employment screening practices was supported and underscored by many case examples where such practices were not followed and, as a result, unsuitable people gained employment in child-related work and went on to sexually abuse the children in their care.
That people identified as unsuitable to work with children following pre-employment screening should be disqualified from doing so was implicit in all the literature identified in this scoping review. However, case examples examined in the included evaluations highlight that enforcing employment prohibitions, even in the face of evidence of child sexual abuse, was not always a matter of course.
That this scoping review did not reveal any rigorous evaluations of the effects of pre-employment screening practices on rates of child sexual abuse is not surprising given the methodological difficulties inherent to this issue. Chief among these is the unknown but probably low, present day rate of reported institutional child sexual abuse by institutional employees, the difficulty of conducting large-scale clinical trials and the sensitivity of disclosing child sexual abuse. However, the literature available provides many insights into the need for comprehensive pre-employment screening practices that include not only criminal background checks but also other pre-employment screening approaches, such as those that aim to identify ‘soft’ information.
Many case examples highlighted the importance of comprehensive pre-employment screening practices, as did the opinions of many key stakeholders identified by the authors of the included evaluations – through qualitative survey analyses and submissions or hearings held by governmental bodies or commissions. Furthermore, the case examples raised the need for clear legislation permitting employment prohibitions based on the outcomes of pre-employment screening practices.
However, there were also many legitimate concerns about such pre-employment screening practices, such as the costs and time delays associated with criminal background checks, or the risk that an applicant will take measures to conceal their identity and history. Additionally, consideration must be given to potential infringements on an individual’s right to privacy, rehabilitation and employment both before the implementation and during the subsequent monitoring, evaluation and revision of pre-employment screening practices.
The potential deterrent effect of comprehensive pre-employment screening practices may never be able to be quantified, but should not be disregarded solely for that reason. The literature suggests that, when combined with other policies and practices that promote a positive organisational culture, comprehensive pre-employment screening practices are likely to contribute to safeguarding children against child sexual abuse.