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Not All Criminal Checks Are Equal

Screening failed to keep suspects from taking positions despite records.


(from left) Marshal Seymour, Mark William Kuzara and Kevin Laing

By Dana Willhoit
The Ledger

November 27, 2007

Marshal Seymour, a 40-year-old volunteer in the youth ministry of the First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, was arrested this month on charges of molesting three teenage boys. He was convicted of a similar crime in Alabama in 1999.

Mark William Kuzara, 31, was hired by the YMCA in Lakeland in June to work as a camp counselor for 8-year-olds despite a lengthy criminal record, including doing time in prison in Florida.

About a month and a half later, he was charged with luring a 15-year-old girl to his house with alcohol, and then stabbing her to death.

Kevin Laing, a 46-year-old registered nurse at Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center in Haines City, was arrested in September on charges of raping a female patient. At the time he was out on bail following an arrest in June in which he was charged with sexual battery on a female patient at Health Central Hospital in nearby Ocoee.

The church, the YMCA and the hospital say they did background checks on the three men, but say they uncovered nothing suspicious.

Were the checks thorough enough? In at least two of the cases, it seems not.

The criminal records of Seymour and Kuzara were available to anyone who knew where to look.

Kuzara's criminal information is easy to find on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Web site; Seymour's is more complicated because he was arrested in another state, but his conviction is public record in Alabama.

Laing's Ocoee arrest in June is on the FDLE Web site. But because the Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center officials refuse to say when he was hired, it is not clear whether his arrest record was available then. He is being held in the Polk County Jail pending his trial in Orange County.

LOCAL CHECK

South Lakeland YMCA officials changed hiring procedures after Kuzara was charged in the stabbing death of 15-year-old Stacey Gloe.

According to YMCA policies, Kuzara, who worked at the YMCA summer camp, should not have been allowed to work there because of his criminal record.

At the time, the YMCA did its own state background checks.

After Kuzara's arrest, YMCA staffer assistant Sharon Andrews told The Ledger that once a Polk County criminal background check was completed, employees were eligible to begin on a temporary basis until their other background checks clear. She said that a state background check can take between 30 and 40 days to complete.

However, FDLE criminal records are available within minutes online, says Al Smith, a private investigator from Bartow.

Smith recommends hiring an expert to do background checks.

Numerous companies promise cheap, fast, thorough background investigations; many promise that they can do "national criminal background checks".

In fact, those familiar with the criminal background-screening industry say, it's not that easy. For instance, there is no such thing as a comprehensive national criminal background check that can be done by a private agency. That is only done by the FBI, which will not do it for private companies.

However, reputable criminal background-screening companies do have resources to uncover the criminal histories of most prospective employees and volunteers.

"Companies that are engaged in the business of pre-employment screening have legal access to some databases that employers wouldn't. They have nationwide resources and contacts that some employers wouldn't," Smith said.

PRIVATE FIRM HIRED

On his application to work at a YMCA summer camp, Kuzara wrote that he was in the Marine Corps from 1994 to 2001, according to Andrews, the YMCA staffer.

But an FDLE criminal history for Kuzara obtained by The Ledger details several arrests during that time frame, as well as a prison sentence from June 1999 to November 2001 on a conviction in nearby Sumter County for criminal mischief with property damage.

The YMCA says it now uses Intellicorp to conduct checks on new employees.

On its Web site, the company says that it is the "architect of the country's most comprehensive and reliable data repository of criminal records and other public information."

The Web site said its customers have access to a variety of records and searches, including criminal searches, civil court searches, sex offender records, drug testing, medical fraud and abuse and a terrorist database search.

When asked how much the new agency costs, Andrews said, "cost was not an issue."

OUT OF STATE

Officials at First Baptist Church say their background check on Seymour turned up nothing about his misdemeanor assault conviction in Mobile, Ala. The check was done for the church by a private firm, according to Lakeland police.

In Alabama, the state does not make records of arrest and criminal conviction available to the public the way the Florida Department of Law Enforcement does. Lynn Childs, public information director for the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, said, "In Alabama, arrest records are not public information."

What are available, however, are court records, which would show Seymour's conviction.

Bruce Berg, owner of the Berg Consulting Group, who formerly ran a criminal background screening company and now does consulting, said employers need a list of every place a prospective employee has lived and then someone should go to the courthouse in each location to run a criminal records check. Had this been done, Seymour's criminal past would have been discovered.

NOT FOOLPROOF

Richard Hammer, legal counsel for the Assembly of God church, is the author of a book, "Reducing The Risk Of Child Sexual Abuse in Your Church."

Among his recommendations are having a reputable company do criminal background checks and seeking references in writing from prospective employee's previous employers and organizations where the person served as a volunteer. Also, he suggests the letter writer state that they know of no reason why this person should not be allowed to work with children.

Hammer said criminal background checks can be done for as little as $10.

However, he said that no screening methods are foolproof: "Criminal records checks are not the gold standard. They are not the sole precaution that must be exercised. A lot of child molesters don't have a record."

And while it is ideal to get a reference from a previous employer, many may not be candid for fear of being sued.

Hammer also suggests what he calls the "six-month rule" - not allowing any new member of a church to volunteer with children for the first six months after they join, and the "two-adult rule" - no minor can be alone with an adult at any church-sponsored function.

Rev. David McIntyre of the First United Methodist Church in Lakeland said his church follows the latter rule: No adult employee or volunteer can be alone with children at the church.

The church also does a background and criminal record check on everyone who applies for a staff position or who wants to volunteer with children at the church, McIntyre said.

"There are those who find out we're going to do a criminal background check on them and say 'never mind,'" he said. "We consider that part of the screening process."

[ Dana Willhoit can be reached at dana.willhoit@theledger.com or 863-533-9079. ]

http://www.theledger.com/article/20071127/NEWS/711270458/1039 

See also:

Youth minister arrested on sex charges. The Ledger, 11/04/2007

   
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