Should a violent criminal record automatically bar you from working with young people and vulnerable adults?

Former director Blair McPherson recounts the 'scandal' surrounding the discovery of a children's home employee's violent past

Man in handcuffs
Photo: Rex/West Coast Surfer/Mood Board

By Blair McPherson

It’s not true that you can’t work for social services if you have a criminal record. What is true is that you are required to declare it, even if it happened years ago. As a senior manager, I always had the task of deciding whether to uphold the interview panel’s decision to offer a post or withdraw the offer because of the outcome of a CRB check. I was expected to take into account the nature of the offence, the age and circumstances of the offender at the time of the offence and whether the post would involve the individual having unsupervised accesses to vulnerable service users. The general rule of thumb was that a conviction involving violence or drugs automatically disqualified you from working with young people, but even that was not always as straightforward as I imagined.

There was a scandal in one of our adolescent units and the subsequent investigation revealed that a member of staff had a conviction for violence. The media got hold of this and, in response, the chair of social services said that all staff working in our homes would have their CRB status reviewed. The implication being that anyone found to have a criminal record would be dismissed, because such people did not make appropriate role models for young people in our care. The assumption was that this was an exceptional case of someone who had slipped through the net. Perhaps their offence was committed after they were appointed and they kept quiet about it.

It turned out to be more complicated than this and to involve more people. This member of staff was part of a group of people who had been recruited at a time when there was concern that staff were increasingly out of touch with the young people who were at risk of offending and getting involved in the drug culture. An outreach programme was set up and funding made available to employ detached youth workers: people who would go onto the inner city streets and get to know young people, liaise with other agencies like schools, housing and police and generally try and direct young people away from crime and drugs.

For this to have a realistic chance of working, it was agreed that the detached youth workers would have to have “street credibility”. Those running the project and responsible for recruitment therefore took a relaxed attitude to convictions for minor offences, arguing that, if anyone who had been in trouble with the law in their youth was ruled out, then the very people the project sought would be excluded.

The funding was for two years and at the end of that period the project was discontinued. However, all those employed as detached youth workers were offered posts in children’s homes where it was felt their skills and experience could be put to good use. Which explains why many years later we had staff with convictions for shoplifting and possession of drugs working in children’s homes.

In the circumstances, it was decided that no action would be taken against these staff. HR undertook new CRB checks on all staff working in our children’s homes, but were not able to give the politicians assurances that there were no other staff working with vulnerable people who had convictions of which we were not aware.

Over the next few months I had interviews with individual members of staff who, either on the advice of their trade union rep, or as a result of a CRB check, wanted to discuss a conviction. There was the home help who had recently been convicted of possessing two marijuana plants in her front room; the mild mannered middle aged policy officer with the conviction following arrest at a football match when he was 17; the young admin officer who was arrested outside a nightclub in a general round up of the drunk and unruly, who was adamant he was neither, but had a solicitor who advised him to plead guilty as then he would only receive a fine.

So I would argue that having a criminal conviction does not automatically rule you out of working with young people and vulnerable adults. But how many social service departments would be prepared to take the risks?

Blair McPherson is a former director of community services

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2 Responses to Should a violent criminal record automatically bar you from working with young people and vulnerable adults?

  1. Berni December 31, 2013 at 3:41 am #

    Well , given that i have a few blemishes resulting from my early life stupidity which i have reflected on and thought long and hard and about , such as how i go to that point etc , i decided to retrain as a social worker. What a hard time 2013 has been. I had two job offers withdrawn due to my convictions , one being assault. It sounds really bad and i cringe every time but i approach the matter with maturity and given the chance i explain the actual context of the matter. He said that , they threw a punch etc etc (age seventeen).

    I decided to retrain to be a social worker because i feel i have actual life experience of getting it wrong , struggling with exclusion and wanting to contribute something back into the social and cultural domain of those i would be working with. Not because i feel that this qualifies myself better than others . Its more the case that i really wanted to help other kids who have come out of the looked after system to make the best of what a social worker could provide with a heavy dose of real life experience .Its funny and ironic that what we work for , are trained to do , is to inspire potential in others for change and to take opportunities in an unequal society where resources are unevenly allocated , so that people can live with hope , take choices and make change in their own lives but also that they understand that their worker has an understanding of the actual problems they may be going through and potential barriers to change and being able to draw upon actual life experience for the benefit of the service user. Also , that they are there for the right reasons and are correctly motivated without colluding with potential abusers and have a understanding of the basic tenant of protecting the vulnerable .

    I am not sure at this point about my social work career ,but i may be moving on on in the new year without having got started. I only ask others who are interviewing/employing people to consider this question/s. What is the context of any disclosure and is it relevant. Also , if you have so little belief about the potential for change where someone has not been charged with a serious sexual or physical offence against a child or adult why have you chosen to be in social work at all let alone be a manager?. Ethics 1.1 anyone.

  2. Stephen Barber January 3, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    The question here is: risk of what? There is the risk of the person reoffending, thereby becoming an unsuitable role model for young people, the risk of direct harm to young people, and the risk of a public scandal because someone with a previous conviction is found to be working with young people. These are different risks.

    The availability of DBS checks is part of the Rehabilitation of Offenders legislation, whose purpose is to encourage ex-offenders to integrate into society and make an appropriate contribution. Many offences are old minor and have nothing to do with risks to young people – or to vulnerable adults while we are about it. But some offences do render someone permanently unsuitable for such work: sexual offences are among these. The DBS operates what was called ‘high level barring’ when it was first set up as the Independent Safeguarding Authority. This means that it will bar when, in its view, people should be barred from any work in the sector. (There is an appeal system if the applicant considers this unjust.) But for other offences the employer has the duty to make a risk assessment and consider what is appropriate and proportionate in its area of work. It is well known that ex-offenders, especially perhaps those who offended in their youth, can become valuable workers with young people, providing they have put their offending history behind them. The risk assessment should consider what the real risk is to young people, if any, and it should be an individual assessment based on the work proposed for the role and the history of the applicant.