Dealing with abuse: Are criminal records checks the answer?

There is a lot of coverage of Oxfam this week – leading to a wider discussion on how we can deal with harm and abuse should it arise, and the role of criminal records. As we think about what steps we can all take next, here are some things to consider and resources you might find useful.

This week, the revelations by Helen Evans now make us question, ‘are Oxfam charity shops a safe place for our young people to volunteer?’ and prompted many to ask, ‘can better use of criminal records checks prevent these types of shocking incidents?’.

It’s worth thinking about some of the more high-profile abusers who have been uncovered in recent years. Before the scale of their abuse was discovered, many did not have criminal records. Yes, in some cases there were suspicions. And now they have been found out, their criminal records will help make sure they don’t abuse again. But are there better ways to prevent abuse in the first place?

Criminal records checks: Can you have too much of a good thing?

Criminal records checks are a useful tool. But with all good tools, they cannot solve all our problems. Take a hammer for example. Great for hammering nails, useless at making tea. And in the wrong hands, downright dangerous. Criminal records checks are similar. Great for identifying ex-offenders but useless in identifying abusers who don’t have a record.

Would we go so far as to say criminal records checks are dangerous? Well, dangerous is a strong word. Certainly since 2006 with the introduction of new safeguarding legislation, there has been an ongoing public debate weighing up the rights of organisations wanting to carry out these checks versus the rights of the individual to their privacy. Over the last few years the pendulum swung in favour of privacy with the introduction of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 which, for some, may have not gone far enough. In 2013, there was a high court ruling meaning certain convictions are now filtered from people’s records. Filtering rules were further criticised by the high court in 2016. This is an incredibly complex area and yes, criminal records are certainly problematic when needlessly applied.

Dealing with it

When putting together their safeguarding toolbox, charities certainly should consider criminal records checks. But remember, these are only accurate on the day they were printed, can take months to get and only tell if someone was caught. Also, it’s worth remembering that not all crimes prevent someone from being a great addition to your team.

When recruiting, charities can also screen applicants by asking about their past, their values and their motivations for applying. These can be tested through interviews, selection events and references. After appointing someone, a trial period is also very useful to monitor someone in action.

Once recruited, charities can also risk assess roles and activities and put steps in place to protect the vulnerable. This could include effective supervision, quality checks, and asking your clients for feedback.

An ongoing battle

Abusers see charities as avenues to vulnerable people. A horrifying thought, but apparently true. Is that a charity’s fault? No. Does that show weakness on behalf of the charity? Well, of course not. A charity can and should aim to do everything it can to prevent abuse, and when it happens, respond fully and competently. But even with all these measures in place will abuse still happen? The sad reality is that a determined abuser will find a way. Through a charity or otherwise.

This is why it is crucial for charities to be transparent about safeguarding – and why working with agencies like the Charity Commission and the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) is so very important. This is also why it is important to create a culture where it’s OK for staff and volunteers to raise concerns to their managers.

From my experience, I know that for every abuser who finds a way, there is a whole group of abusers who are identified and dealt with by charities. Let’s recognise that charities not only do a great job in being there for the most vulnerable in our society, but also work hard to tackle threats from abusers on a daily basis. The stories we’ve heard over the last week are a reminder that there is always room for improvement.

For further support:

In the wake of this news, NCVO has opened up relevant resources that are normally exclusively for our members:

Further guidance and support on volunteering, volunteer management and charity shops:

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Shaun is volunteering development manager at NCVO, overseeing strategy for volunteer management and good practice. Previously, he was head of volunteering at Samaritans and is currently a volunteer trustee of Greater London Volunteering.

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