It’s important that any organisation working with the young or vulnerable carry out proper risk assessments and, as George’s story shows, formal criminal record checks and assessments don’t automatically lead to you being refused a voluntary role.
Just over two years ago I was convicted of an offence which means that I still have an unspent conviction.
My arrest and conviction was just what I needed to make me take a long hard look at the life I was leading. I knew what I was doing was wrong and during that period of my life, I’d pushed away the people that were important to me, making me feel more isolated than ever.
Although I needed an arrest to break my cycle of offending, it was nonetheless terrifying going through the criminal justice system, facing up to the crimes I’d committed and not know what would happen when I went to court. I was lucky that whilst I was going through this, I was able to reconnect with my family and some of my friends who gave me a tremendous amount of support – I don’t know how I would have got through it without them.
Finding myself in a much better place I decided about a year ago that I’d like to do some voluntary work to help others going through difficult times. I’d never contacted the Samaritans myself but I’d always been a bit in awe of an organisation who set out to ensure that there was always somebody there for anyone who needed a safe place to talk. And so, I found myself looking at the Samaritans website and finding out how I could go about becoming a listening volunteer.
I completed the application form and handed it into my local Samaritans branch and I was very quickly invited to attend an interview. Although there hadn’t been any questions on the application form about criminal records, I was fairly sure that I’d be asked about them at the interview but I wasn’t. There was a part of me that wanted to say something but I decided to just ‘go with the flow’ and tell them when I was asked.
I felt my interview had gone well and I was delighted to hear that I’d been successful and was invited to start my formal training. I was told that a pack of information would be sent to me setting out details of the training programme and telling me what I needed to bring to the first session. When I received this a couple of days later, reality hit.
I was told that although there’d be an introduction session where we’d introduce ourselves to each other, the main aim of the morning would be to do admin and form filling including completing the paperwork for our enhanced DBS checks!! I knew instantly that I needed to disclose my conviction before I got this far – I couldn’t bear the thought of meeting new people and getting excited and motivated by the role only to be turned down once they’d seen my DBS. So with some trepidation, I arranged to go and meet with the manager of my local branch.
The first thing I did as I sat down with her (Jean) was to apologise for not having had this conversation sooner. I was so nervous that my palms were sweating like mad but my mouth was so dry I could barely speak. Jean offered me a glass of water and told me to take my time. At the end of my disclosure she said:
Well that wasn’t too bad was it?
She went on to explain that there were no blanket bans on any offences for listening volunteers and that all criminal records were assessed on a case by case basis. She asked me about any restrictions/conditions I had and thanked me for being so upfront and honest. She encouraged me to go along to the first session, fill in my DBS form and meet the others.
I really enjoyed my training although at times it could be mentally draining and the more I did the more I realised how devastated I’d be if I was rejected as a result of my DBS check.
When the certificate came back, I was invited to another meeting to discuss its contents before being told that the Samaritans had no problem with me being a listening volunteer.
I’m sure there are people out there that will be alarmed to hear that somebody with a criminal record has been accepted as a volunteer. Let me reassure you – I don’t pose any risk to anybody I work with or listen to and I’m sure that the rigorous training I’ve been put through by the Samaritans would have highlighted any concerns they had. Many of the people I listen to are so desperate that they are considering ending their lives – if you were that person wouldn’t you just want someone to listen to you, would it matter that they’d made a mistake themselves in the past.
By George (name changed to protect identity)
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