The Importance of Family Reference Checks

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A youth-serving organization was in the process of hiring a new Sports Coordinator. As one of their hiring practices, they required all applicants to list a family member as one of their references.

Adam—the Sports Director hiring for this position—took note of the fact that one of the applicants had previously been the assistant soccer coach at another youth-serving organization. As part of the vetting process, he called the applicant's aunt—who was listed as a family reference—and asked if she thought this applicant would be a good fit for the job. The aunt responded by saying, “Well, do you have another job opening that doesn't involve working with youth?”

Throughout the conversation, the aunt made multiple comments which implied that he should not be hired to work with youth. When Adam asked her why, she said, “He was let go from his last job where he was an assistant soccer coach for children ages 7-8.” The applicant did not disclose this on his application.

As this example shows, family reference checks can potentially prevent abuse from happening at your organization by screening applicants who are not suited to work with youth. Here's how:

Additional Layer of Protection

Only 3% of abusers are listed on the Sexual Offenders Registry. Furthermore, only 38% of children who have been sexually abused disclose the abuse to someone. When abuse is reported to the authorities, arrests are only made 29% of the time.

Clearly, while criminal background checks and professional references can serve as a deterrent to potential abusers, they are far from foolproof. Family reference checks offer an additional layer of protection that can not only alert you to specific incidents or red flags, but also help to identify patterns in a person's behavior that might not be evident from professional references and criminal background checks alone.

Importance of a Family Reference

Requiring a family member as a reference opens up the opportunity to learn more about an applicant. That’s because family members will usually have a broader picture of an applicant's personality and behavior over the span of their life, putting them in a position to connect the dots between separate or seemingly isolated incidents. Even if a family member doesn’t share exactly why someone is not suited to work with children, their answers may still bring red flags to light. Some questions you can ask a family member are:

  • “Would you be comfortable placing your own children in the care of this applicant?”
  • “Is this applicant the right fit for working with youth?”
  • “Please give me an example of how the applicant relates to children.”
  • “Tell me about the applicant's ability to maintain appropriate boundaries with children.”

Sometimes, what a reference does not say is just as important as what they do say. They might not, for example, feel comfortable answering these questions. And this may be the only available indication that the candidate should not be hired to work with or around youth.

Given the paramount importance of protecting the children in your care, empower your staff to reject an applicant based on the responses of family references alone.

Steps You Can Take

  1. Update your hiring practices and employment application to require a family member as 1 of the references.

  2. Educate any staff responsible for hiring new employees on the intent and purpose behind conducting a family reference check, as well as its potential impact.

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