Agencies struggle to judge when an ex-offender is ready to be employed

Last week, a woman who was formerly homeless and misused drugs had
a job offer at a homelessness unit withdrawn after it emerged that
she had two convictions for assault.

The most recent of those offences was committed six years ago.
Since then Cherie-Ann Kerr, a 31-year-old single mother of a young
daughter, has changed her life. Next month she is due to finish a
three-year social care course – a clear sign of the progress that
she has made.

Yet the management of the unit were unconvinced and left a message
on Kerr’s answerphone saying they were withdrawing the offer. There
was insufficient proof of her rehabilitation, it seems.

The case, which is unlikely to be an isolated one, highlights a
tough dilemma faced by employers in the social care field.

It involves balancing the responsibility to protect service users
against a duty not to discriminate against someone who has paid for
their crime and is trying to rebuild their life. Can employers
afford to take the chance when the consequences of getting it wrong
for the organisation and the service user could be dire?

Wanda Spooner, director of human resources at Centrepoint,
estimates that in eight out of 10 cases where an applicant has
convictions the decision is clear cut. In some cases organisations
have blanket bans. Those working with children, for example, would
never employ someone with a conviction against children.

Similarly, minor offences, such as a conviction for shoplifting a
packet of cigarettes 20 years previously, is unlikely to affect
someone’s chances of getting a job in social care.

But for the small percentage of cases where the offence appears to
be more serious, employers must take into account a whole range
offactors. Adrian Thomas, spokesperson for crime reduction charity
Nacro, believes that the guidance given by the National Care
Standards Commission is insufficient.

It advises employers that deciding whether someone’s past
conviction should prevent them getting a job “in all such instances
will be a judgment call for the employing provider”.

Its vagueness is necessary because no single piece of guidance
could provide advice on every conceivable set of circumstances
employers may encounter. But Thomas believes that a few example
scenarios would be helpful.

Part of the problem for employers is that while there is a
cleargovernment push to involve service users more in shaping and
delivering services – and a natural extension of this is to employ
people who at some stage in their life may have been service users
because of the skills and understanding of a particular group they
might have – it coincides with the emergence of a risk-averse

Highly publicised cases of abuse involving care professionals are
likely to make employers nervous that a mistake could see them
become the latest victim of media hungry for a scandal.

While most working in social care are committed to the principle of
giving people a second chance it is tempered with caution.

As Spooner puts it: “We are working with young people, who had
problems, and we can hardly expect other employers to give them a
chance if we don’t.”

In practice though, whether consciously or not, it is likely that
many employers, particularly those in small charities who have
traditionally employed former service users, will feel less able to
take a chance on someone with a past conviction because of the huge
rises in their employer liability insurance.

For a small voluntary sector organisation struggling to cope with
massive hikes in insurance, an incident that occurs as a result of
a recruitment mistake could be disastrous and so they might err on
the side of caution.

Recent research by the National Council of Voluntary Organisations
showed that two-thirds of small- and medium-sized employers do not
have a human resources department and consequently have less
expertise in making the complex assessments needed. The decision as
to whether to employ someone with a criminal record may fall to a
single worker, rather than a small team who will share the

Even for well-established national charities there can be problems.
Janice Cook, director of human resources at children’s charity NCH,
admits “there are some judgments that have to be made which are
very difficult”.

But she adds that the charity’s guidance, which was drawn up in
2000 and formalised what thecharity had been doing for many years,
provides a framework. “We have very skilled professionals who can
tell when people are rehabilitated,” she says.

Decisions, which are made on a case-by-case basis, take into
account the nature of the crime, how long ago it was, the
punishment and the context and the person’s attitude towards it.
All of these elements are intended to minimise risk.

As Cook points out: “With assault, there is a difference between a
shove and a punch. Context is also important. Did the person hit
someone in a pub or a church?”

Spooner adds that the information given by the Criminal Records
Bureau, which provides a description of the crime and the
punishment, is on its own “hopeless” and what can appear on paper
to be a serious crime may be just the opposite.

“I recently had a case where a woman had a CRB check and it came
back that she had a conviction for assault and when I asked her
about it she was embarrassed and admitted it was for throwing a
ticket at a traffic warden,” she adds.

Most agree that the failure of an applicant to volunteer
information on any past convictions in the job interview, even if
it is not asked for, would automatically cast doubt on the overall
integrity of the applicant.

As Sarah Beech, director of partnerships at charity Revolving Door,
points out: “The stigma of having a conviction is immense and I can
see why someone would not offer information if they were not asked.
But I would still expect them to [offer information] because
otherwise it sets up a difficult dynamic from the start.”

Spooner says that she has not so far had cause to regret recruiting
someone with a criminal record. But, she adds: “I once had two
candidates for an administrative job. One had a conviction for
murder and I didn’t recruit him. But the person I did take on later
made off with thousands of pounds worth of computers never to be
seen again. I then called the person with the conviction to see if
he wanted the job. He did, he started and he was brilliant.”

She acknowledges that he was not working with vulnerable people,
but Spooner believes her story illustrates the importance of not
judging someone solely on their past but totting up the risks and
having a little faith.

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