The trouble with criminal record checks on volunteers

The trouble with criminal record checks on volunteers

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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Three ways to adapt your volunteer management for the ‘new formal’

Three ways to adapt your volunteer management for the ‘new formal’

‘The new normal’. Everyone is saying it. Personally, I dislike the term. Every day is a new normal and always has been. But there is a new term I like, coined by Gethyn Williams on Twitter in late August 2020 – ‘the new formal’. What does it mean?

To me, ‘the new formal’ describes the changes needed to the pre-pandemic process-heavy, systems-oriented approach to volunteer engagement. One of the good changes Covid-19 brought about was to sweep away layers of bureaucracy so people could just get stuck in and help out. Old orthodoxies about form filling, risk avoidance and checking the criminal records of anyone with a pulse disappeared as communities mobilised in a matter of days and 700,000 applied in a week to be NHS Volunteer Responders. I was one of these eager volunteers and in under 24 hours was cleared to perform tasks that just a few days beforehand would have required Olympic standard hoop jumping to get involved in.

Like a piece of elastic that is stretched so hard and so fast it can never regain its original shape, so the formalities of volunteer engagement have changed forever thanks to Covid-19. This doesn’t mean abandoning safeguarding, never conducting a DBS / PVG check again, and putting the needs of volunteers before the safety of clients. But it does mean taking a long, hard look at what we do, when we do it and why, thinking afresh about our practice. Hence the ‘new formal’.

Here are three aspects of volunteer engagement that we could start thinking about:

1 – Application forms & interviews

Why exactly do we ask questions on an application form and then ask the same questions when we interview volunteers? Can we not ask the questions once, face-to-face and fill in the form as a record of the conversation? Not only would that save paperwork, it’d help open up volunteering to those who can’t write, have a sight loss, have poor literacy or don’t use English as their first language. Two birds with one stone – a step toward greater diversity and less bureaucracy.

2 – Safeguarding in stages

Instead of taking references, conducting criminal record checks and all the other screening steps as soon as someone starts volunteering, why not do it in stages? Rather than viewing anyone unpaid as risky (why else do we check absolutely everyone who isn’t paid but often subject paid staff to far less scrutiny?), why not bring in appropriate screening at different stages as people depend their involvement with us?

That means someone volunteering one-to-one with a vulnerable client gets the full suite of checks, but someone checking in event participants for a few hours just has to give us an emergency contact and enough information for Track and Trace to do their thing.

3 – In volunteers we trust

An absence of pay does not mean an absence of competence. Likewise, paying someone does not automatically make them better at what they do, more reliable, more trustworthy etc.. So, perhaps we need to ease up on the fear and worry about what volunteers might do wrong and instead trust them to do things right. After all, if you’ve done a good job recruiting, selecting and training the volunteer, aren’t you trusting in your own abilities as much as theirs? What message does it send if you don’t trust your own work?

I’ve shared three thoughts on how we might adapt volunteer management to the ‘new formal’ but I know there are many more ways we could ease up the formality of volunteering without sacrificing the safety of volunteering.

What else would you add to the list? What have you done already or what are you planning to do. Share your thoughts in the comments or in response to wherever you found this article on social media.