Police arrested Kenneth Peterson after they say he sexually abused a 10-year-old boy while working as a housing monitor at a Bentonville Salvation Army shelter. After the arrest, using a database only accessible by law enforcement, Bentonville police discovered Peterson had been convicted of indecent liberties with a child in Kansas in 1982. The Salvation Army won't discuss details, but says it's conducting an internal investigation into Peterson's hiring, saying "it is our standard practice to conduct background checks on all employees."
The Salvation Army won't confirm it performed a background check on Peterson - but if it did - that may not have uncovered his prior conviction. We went online and paid for an advanced background check on Peterson and nothing came up in his arrest records. In fact, even if a professional company performed a check they may not have found the 1982 conviction either.
"It's so old, that stuff probably wasn't all digitized," said Paul Hickman with Courthouse Concepts. "There are counties all over Arkansas that don't have their stuff scanned so you can't look online and see that there is a record. It just hasn't caught up yet."
Hickman performs professional background checks. He didn't perform the check for the Salvation Army but says usually employers don't look for anything farther back than seven to ten years - and many employers aren't asking for in-depth searches.
"Some companies just want to say they are doing a background check," Hickman said. "It's a cursory search, it's inexpensive and quick. They can make people feel good that they are doing a background search."
Basic searches - like what we bought online - come from databases where information is purchased from states and the departments of correction, but not all of them sell that information, leaving gaps.
A professional company can do a search by social security number. That finds all the places a person has lived and worked and then the company can check all the records from those areas themselves.
"Some companies are doing what they should be doing - checking out where they have lived for the past seven to ten years," Hickman said.
"When you are talking about a police officer, it is a huge responsibility," Fayetteville Police Sergeant Craig Stout said.
Fayetteville police conducted a thorough background check on former police officer Jamison Stiles. They also eventually arrested him for rape and sexual assault after two victims came forward.
"We try to take steps to prevent anything from happening, but unfortunately no one does have the ability to look into someone's heart or brain and know what they are capable of," Sgt Stout said. "We don't have that crystal ball but we try to take as many steps as possible."
Fayetteville police employ a team of specially trained officers to perform background checks on candidates. They undergo a criminal check with the law enforcement database - a physical evaluation - and drug screening, but police also take it one step further with a mental evaluation. Stiles did pass all of these tests, and although police say they are confident in their background check process, his situation is making them review their procedures to see if they should be doing even more.
"There is no silver bullet to catch everything but we want to make sure we do as much as possible so we don't have a situation like this happen again," Sgt. Stout said.
Barry Gebhardt's arrest stunned administrators. He served as Fayetteville Athletic Director for years until police arrested him for texting with what he though was a 14-year girl, who turned out to be a police officer. Human Resources Director Greg Mones said that one of the most revealing things schools do in checking out potential employees is extensive reference checks.
"We talk to as many people as we can to find out if there is anything there that wasn't reported in a background check," Mones said.
Arkansas Department of Education employee background checks are performed by Arkansas State Police. Candidates undergo fingerprinting, criminal checks, online screening and their name is run through the child maltreatment database.
"Those sometimes take weeks to get back so they are very extensive," Mones said.
Despite Gebhardt's arrest, Mones says the district feels its background checks are solid - and its kids are safe.
"When parents send their child to us in the morning they expect that child to be safe and return home safely - and this is just one small thing we can do to ensure that," Mones said.
Not all people around children are subject to a background check or screening. Anyone who works for a state licensed childcare provider must submit to an FBI criminal records check - and child maltreatment records check. But some groups and private employers are not required by law to do any checks at all.
"Daycare centers have to do background checks but not necessarily Chucky Cheese or the churches that aren't getting paid to watch children," Hickman said.
Hickman recommends people start investigating just how much research is being done on the people around them - and their children.
"I would want to make sure they were doing a background check," Hickman said. "I wouldn't just take their word for it. I would ask - what kind of background check are you doing?"