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