It is an issue that simply won’t go away. Whenever volunteering gets mentioned, it seems the issue of criminal record checks isn’t far away. For twenty-seven years they have been a part of my professional life, so I want to use this article to share some history and insights that, I hope, will help fellow leaders of volunteer engagement effectively screen volunteers who will be working with vulnerable people. Let’s dive in.

Whether they are DBS checks in England and Wales, PVG checks in Scotland, ANI checks in Northern Ireland or something else entirely depending on where in the world you are, criminal record checks (CRCs) will feature in discussions on volunteering at conference panel sessions; networking, learning, and development events for leaders of volunteer engagement; in the press; and on social media.

Yet, there was a time criminal record checks were almost impossible to do on volunteers here in the UK.

Back in the mid-1990s, I worked for Barnardo’s, supporting the involvement of volunteers who worked with vulnerable children and young people. We were one of the few organisations that could do CRCs, but the vast majority of volunteer involving organisations couldn’t. Instead, they applied several screening techniques to manage the risk to their clients from involving ‘unsuitable’ volunteers.

Within the context of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions Order 1975) these included:

Application forms

When looking at a prospective volunteer, Volunteer Managers would pay close attention to the information supplied, looking for inconsistencies, gaps in employment records etc. and following these up with questions at interview (see below). They also checked the information supplied by the volunteer against other documents, such as…

References

Considerable care was taken to secure at least two good quality references. Usually, this involved one professional reference and one personal reference. The evidence from programmes like Big Brothers and Sisters in the USA indicates that personal referees are much more likely to reveal details of someone’s past that might prevent them from volunteering than previous employers fearful of litigation.

Canadian screening expert Linda Graff (now retired) often argued that references are a hugely under-used tool in screening, and her book “Beyond Police Checks” is still an essential read on volunteer screening and comes highly recommended.

Interviews

Ideally done by two people, interviews (whether you call them that or used softer language) were an essential screening tool. They provided the main opportunity to query information provided on application forms and in references, testing their validity and looking for anything that might flag up unsuitability to work with vulnerable people.

Supervision

Ongoing regular supervision to check on the volunteer, what they were doing, what they were struggling with, what support they needed etc. and to a formally or informally address issues that arose.

Formal reviews

Whether annually or more frequent, formal check points in addition to ongoing supervision were important to review the volunteers’ place and role within the organisation and to flag issues that might have arisen.

User and volunteer feedback

Looking for the views and opinions of service users and other volunteers, both on the whole scope of volunteer engagement and on the work of other volunteers. This was sometimes formally enshrined in whistle-blower policies.

Above all organisations — whether they had access to criminal record checks or not — employed a suite of tools to screen people wanting to volunteer with vulnerable people. They didn’t do one thing, they employed an ongoing process that continued when recruitment and onboarding finished. Critically, they spent time considering all these tools in the round to look for clues as to somebody not being a suitable volunteer.

To illustrate this point, I was once cross-checking the information provided in the criminal record check and volunteer application forms of a potential volunteer at Barnardo’s. All looked good at first glance. Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed that on one form the surname was Brown and on the other Browne. The dates of birth were also out by a day. We followed up with the person concerned and heard nothing more from them. Now, they might have been totally innocent and never responded because they’d changed their minds about volunteering. But, what if they had been deliberately trying to sneak through the system with misinformation, hoping nobody would spot it? Without that close attention to detail cross-referencing the two forms, we might never have spotted a potential risk to the vulnerable young people we served.

That’s how things used to be.

Then, in 1997, the Police Act came into force. Part five of the Act provided the legislative basis for wider access to criminal record checks via the Criminal Records Bureau (which later became the DBS in England and Wales). The CRB, followed by its successors across the UK, set out guidance and codes of practice on checking volunteers that explained who could be checked and at what level. These documents were seen as important to ensure that checking was only done where appropriate & necessary (keeping checks on volunteers free) and to set them within the proper context as just one tool within the wider screening systems organisations should use.

Yet despite this guidance, and almost twenty-five years since the CRC bodies we know and love (?) today came into existence in the UK, the advice and approach of some (many?) organisations is that all volunteers should undergo a criminal record check, regardless of the role they will be doing.

Aside from the fact that this isn’t allowed under CRC guidelines, these organisations behave as if a clearance from the DBS / PVG / ANI schemes is a guarantee that volunteers pose no risk to clients.

The old-school approach of employing a wide range of screening techniques, cross-referencing the information prospective volunteers supply to spot irregularities and possible causes for concern, has been replaced with too much faith being placed in CRCs. Today, the narrative and day-today practice around screening seems to be fixated with CRCs, almost always excluding any other screening method or combination thereof.

Don’t get me wrong, criminal record checks can be an important screening tool, and we should have access to them, but their value is only realised if they are used as part of a comprehensive screening process, not if they are the only screening process.

Of course, there are organisations out there doing great work screening volunteers well and effectively safeguarding vulnerable people with sensible use of all the screening tools they have, including CRCs. But too often I think some organisations remain reliant on CRCs, excluding everything else. Indeed, as I said in the first version of this article that I wrote back in 2012, I fear we’ve lost many of the skills and subtle understanding needed to properly safeguard vulnerable people because we’ve become too reliant on a single CRC that is out of date as soon as it is conducted.

So, in summary, the trouble with CRB checks is that: we have become worryingly reliant upon them; we gain a false sense of safety by conducting them; and consequently, we are less safe because of them.


What do you think?

Do you agree with me?

Have you got tips or stories to share on effective volunteer screening that goes beyond CRCs?

Leave a comment below to share your thoughts or experiences of criminal record checking, whether you agree with me or not.


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5 thoughts on “The trouble with criminal record checks on volunteers

  1. Thank you for this comprehensive look at the dangers of overreliance on criminal background checks, Rob. From my perspective as a former manager of a youth mentoring program, a criminal background check should be just one part of a holistic screening process, and a minor one at that. The only thing they can tell you is whether someone has been caught doing something that would bar them from a program – not what they have gotten away with, or their potential to do harm. Effective assessment of volunteers working with vulnerable people requires good judgement during the screening process, supported by multiple sources of information, but it doesn’t end there. Ongoing support – and vigilance! – throughout a volunteer’s time with an organization is necessary as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s so frustrating! It’s why Linda Graff named her book on volunteer safety “Beyond Police Checks.” Police background checks are SUCH a lousy way of knowing if someone is going to be safe around clients and other volunteers! In addition, there are schools here in the USA that will automatically refuse a parent who has any kind of criminal record, meaning that if a parent or grandparent stole a car at 18 – and, absolutely, that’s horrible – they aren’t allowed to serve refreshments at a group event 30 years later. Like Linda, you’ve pointed out all of the ways that are so much more effective to keep clients and volunteers safe. In a similar vein, I’m amazed at how many organizations insist on “meeting” someone online, during a live video conference, before they will let them take on an online role – like translating some text from one language to another, testing a new web site or app, etc. – why?!? I’m a stickler for safety measures when it comes to volunteer engagement, but the overreliance on criminal background checks is so disturbing, for all the reasons you’ve pointed out.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for writing this article Rob I share much of your sentiment on this issue. Neil you make a very good point about the validity / redundancy of these checks post issue date. And how often do organisations revet their staff and vols?!
    I resent the enormous costs that the organisation incurs to vet volunteers in this way. Not only is there an over reliance on these checks by way of ‘compliance’ but I suspect the funds for the checks could be so much better invested in to the programme infrastructure and training opportunities for volunteers and staff to enable safe, inclusive and accessible spaces for all.
    As we strive to make volunteering more accessible and remove any barriers for volunteers the very nature of volunteering means we are likely to incur costs for checks that may not see a return on investment.
    I would like to see more possibilities and greater acceptance for transferable checks to be used. It seems backward to me that you can get some enhanced checks for free for volunteers depending on the nature of their role but the basic check (which as you say is widely adopted at organisation level as blanket rule) is the check that costs. Add in the rigmarole and time spent processing the forms and there’s the major portion of your budget disappeared.
    References have changed too dramatically in recent years to be of great value in my opinion – they are now typically a tick box exercise to confirm you know x and they did y. Conversely open references are hard work for individuals to complete in a timely way and open to misuse.
    It’s a tough nut to crack…. But an interesting conversation to have.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Some interesting points Rob. I have always maintained that a clear DBS check does not mean you are clear of all wrongdoing, it just means you haven’t been caught. The whole Jimmy Saville incident has put everyone on guard and yet it is often overlooked that Saville would have had a clear DBS history. Also, the issue that there are clear guidelines as to who should be checked is raised here, with many volunteer recruiters determined to DBS check all volunteers even though, in many cases, this can be illegal. This proved a big stumbling block to getting Covid response volunteers active in some cases where I’m sure a DBS check was totally unnecessary. I am currently involved in a volunteer programme where a criminal record can actually been seen as valuable lived experience, for an organisation that actively encourages employers to take on those with a criminal past, and yet I wonder how many volunteer recruiters are willing to give someone a chance to rehabilitate with them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great points Neil. I wrote a blog post a long time ago about how the volunteering field got a lucky escape because nobody talks about Jimmy Saville as a volunteer. As you say, a CRC would have come back clear on him.

      Like

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