Disclosure and Social Work; A Barrier to a Second Chance? One Story Amongst the Many by David Anderson
What follows is a personal testimony, it is an account of my experience of so-called ‘care’ from a Local Authority in Scotland and my journey away from crime to a settled and productive life. It documents the difficulties I experienced when being subject to the disclosure system in Scotland whereby previous convictions must be exposed when applying for certain jobs.
It discusses the failings of a Social Care system in providing for care-experienced persons who are disproportionally criminalised in comparison to non care-experienced young people. Social Work is supposedly about helping people to move on in their lives. I found that this only goes so far and that a second chance is difficult to obtain in the risk-averse world of Social Care employment. My experience is not uncommon.
Currently, moves are afoot to improve the flawed disclosure system currently in place. I hope this testimony demonstrates in some way why that change is long overdue.
I was born, unplanned, a year after the birth of my sister, into a family in which the parental relationship had already begun to disintegrate. We lived in an area of some deprivation, surrounded by four other housing estates, all areas of some deprivation.
My father at that time, was a young and irresponsible man, he was also; manipulative, controlling, an alcoholic, a liar, a thief and a cheat. In no way was he a very good father, though he wasn’t an entirely bad person either. My mother – a moral and intelligent woman, tried her best to ensure her children were looked after.
She suffered greatly from depression, having spent time in a mental institute as an adolescent, she was also emotionally cold towards us as children, even if she loved us greatly. Unfortunately, there was no hugging it better. A further unplanned boy was born five years after me, the subsequent undiagnosed post-natal depression impacted greatly on my mother and family life in general.
I was a child who displayed a range of behavioural problems from an early age; at school, in the family home and the local community. I ran away from home for the first time aged 8. I was involved in fights, property damage, sniffing solvents, theft and other antisocial behaviour. I was eventually removed, aged 10, from the care of my mother (my Father left the family home following my mother’s breakdown, never to return) and placed in what was then known as an assessment centre.
On my first night in the assessment centre I was introduced to drugs. Another child passed them to me, I accepted on the basis that I wanted to be accepted by my new peer group. This group was a collection of damaged and vulnerable children, who, to a greater or lesser extent, had all suffered from care and neglect issues in their early years. Bullying, violence, abuse, conflict and physical punishment were commonplace. I had been placed in the assessment centre for an initial three-week period, I would go on to spend some three years in this semi-secure environment (doors and windows were locked, we wore the same clothes etc.).
Within a year or so I was absconding regularly. One time, at the age of 12, I found myself agreeing to a homemade tattoo whilst in the house of a drug dealer, I was under the influence of both alcohol and cannabis, both substances were unknown to me prior to my being placed in care. That is not to say that I wouldn’t have come across them at home but being in care did not protect me from such an eventuality.
Indeed, I would posit that there was an increased chance of my falling prey to drug and alcohol abuse because of being ‘in care’, the prevalence of such behaviour being as it was. It wasn’t quite the ‘new start’ my Social Worker had envisaged for me on recommending a supervision order.
During my five years in the care of a local Authority I was looked after; at home, in a National Children’s home, several council-run residential establishments of various sizes, foster care and mainstay care placements. I omit to give numerous details of the many experiences that shaped me and contributed to my behaviour, suffice to say, that abuse of several kinds looms large in my childhood and adolescence.
I don’t deny any of my past, especially my part in events where my actions were wrong, and I accept that I made many wrong choices both to my own detriment and that of others. In saying that, to hold that I was failed by the system would be a fair assessment of what occurred.
My education took place in a residential setting and three different high schools. I left with no qualifications following being expelled aged fifteen. I was placed in my own flat some weeks after my sixteenth birthday and subsequently discharged from my supervision order. I had no preparation for independent living.
Indeed, on making soup for the first time, I looked down in dismay at the pieces of vegetables floating in the water, I had no idea I needed a stock cube. I was given unemployment cheques fortnightly, I had no budgeting skills. I regularly wasted it all on coin-operated gambling machines. At times, I would be reduced to eating Weetabix and margarine washed down with water as I waited for either my next unemployment cheque or success in shoplifting.
Several weeks later, I invited an older male, whom I knew from a previous placement, to stay with me (I was often scared and frightened, I had never lived on my own prior to that, I’d always been surrounded by numerous people). Two days after he moved in, he and his brother beat me badly and stole all my belongings. I did not go back to the flat. I stayed, clandestinely, in a friend’s semi-independent flat, one that was attached to a Children’s Home.
The staff discovered me after a few days and told me I could not stay, I ended up sleeping on the stairs in a multi-storey block. Fortunately, a few days later, an older male I knew took pity on me, taking me to his shared flat and giving me the spare room. When discussing my arrival with his flatmates, who initially baulked at the thought of ‘a wee thief’ living in their midst, my friend told them,
“I can’t leave him oot in the street”.
I felt like a stray animal.
The transition from care into an adult system of criminal justice was a hard and shocking event. Although, in retrospect, my five years in care had been a preparation for imprisonment, such wad the institutional nature of the place. The times that I was involved with the police prior to turning sixteen had resulted in no real consequences and it was commonplace amongst my peer group to ‘be in trouble wi’ the polis’. I was first locked up four months after my sixteenth birthday, I had missed a court date for a shoplifting offence. The sitting sheriff decided I needed the shock of an adult prison to alter my behaviour.
I was incarcerated in Perth Prison, in the old Victorian-era C-Hall, a four-level block housing every type of criminal known to the prison system. The remand section was at the top, we had to pass every other level on the way to our allocated cells. The bottom level housed long-term prisoners, including at the time Robert Mone, the triple-killer, a man, who only several days before my arrival, had (allegedly) raped another young prisoner (incidentally, something that has stuck with me throughout my life, this young victim of serious sexual assault, still in his teenage years, was given no real support from the prison, not only that, he was shown no empathy from the prison population, once word got out he had been the person raped, he was verbally abused by many inmates, who called him some brutal and terrible names, I can’t forget that lack of empathy).
The second level housed sex-offenders and other prisoners deemed at risk from the remainder of the prison population. The third level housed short-term prisoners, those with the least to invest in following rules, as they would soon be released. The assortment of individuals on the remand level where I was sent were in for a variety of crimes, ranging from petty crime to armed robbery and serious assault. I had stolen a video cassette, a packet of batteries and a bottle of cider. Three sixteen-year old boys made that walk up the metal stairs that day, one collapsed with fear at the top and was taken to the prison hospital, I too recall struggling to keep myself upright, such was the fear coursing through me.
In the following four years I would move on from shoplifting to become involved in selling drugs and resetting stolen goods. These four years were punctuated by incidents of violence, brought on by my involvement in criminal society and my inability to control myself when under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. A particular low point was learning that money had been offered in Glasgow to have me shot following an altercation with a rival group of drug dealers, one in which I had my head smashed open with a large spanner.
I was imprisoned on two following occasions. It was during the last period of imprisonment that I decided to give changing my life a go. Fortunately, I had been imprisoned for six months for a series of crimes, including assault, possession of drugs, perverting the course of justice and a long list of road traffic offences. I say fortunately, because several of my peer group at that time were in prison for periods ranging from 4 to 8 years through their involvement in the drug trade.
It was nigh on certain that I too would have met the same fate had I not been imprisoned for that short period of time at that point in my life. I was heavily involved in selling drugs and the associated violence and conflict that surrounds parts of that subculture. At least seven young men I was associated with during my time in care and those four years died from either committing suicide or drugs/misadventure. Whilst in prison I decided to move away from the area I lived. I contacted my Mother and asked if I could move in with her following my release from prison. To my eternal gratitude, she said yes.
On returning to the family home I managed to keep away from trouble, I was employed in a series of menial jobs, jobs that required no background checks. After a year or so I decided to give college a try. I signed up for an access to University course. It was specifically for people with no qualifications who wished to go to University.
It was a series of modules that mimicked the University system of producing written work to demonstrate your competence and understanding. I thrived in this environment, I had always enjoyed learning as a child, I just could not accept authority. At College, I made new friends, friends who were not involved in crime, friends who had positive plans for their lives, some of those surrounding me were people I wanted to emulate, a positive peer group. I passed the year and gained a place at University.
At University, I continued to make progress, my mind was now open to all that a good education can offer, not least some understanding of society and what it means to be a citizen. After two years of study, I began working in a local homeless shelter. Despite there being legislation in place, the charity did not perform the necessary checks on me and I worked there for almost a year during my third year of studies. I was successful in my post, relating especially to the young people who entered the establishment. I promoted education and training as a pathway to a better future at every opportunity. It was at this point that I was offered a chance to move job.
It is from this point on that my relationship with disclosure becomes important. I hope this in some way demonstrates the need for change in the system and qualified risk-taking within the sector when confronted with people with a criminal record. It should at least give food for thought to those discussing this issue.
At University, a friend overhead me discussing my job, they told me they were struck by my enthusiasm and commitment to helping young people move on from homelessness. Unbeknown to me, they contacted someone they knew who was involved at senior level with a charity working with children and young people deemed ‘hardest to reach’ (not my description), those who were either looked after or on the fringes of a supervision order. They passed on my details and I was contacted for a meeting. I was intrigued and went along to discuss the job with a manager from the charity, it was a very interesting proposition and I relayed my interest in pursuing it.
Immediately, I informed that I had several previous convictions, the manager told me they would speak with the Board of Directors about this. I was then invited in to meet the Board of Directors. I explained my history as I view it and spoke of my then current job and life circumstances. I was told I would be contacted once my disclosure had been received.
I was contacted several weeks later and invited to another meeting, this time with the head of Children Services in the Local Authority (LA) where I lived. I spoke again about my life and circumstances. The head of services had pulled my file and gave the charity the go-ahead to employ me. Given that the charity received all its work from the LA, I was indirectly working for the LA. This was my chance, these people had taken the time to investigate my contextual history, to assess my current situation and take a qualified risk in employing me.
The process of re-confession, revisiting the past and disclosing personal information had paid off. It hadn’t been a pleasant experience, but I had some faith in those who were encouraging me, they seemed genuinely interested in helping me, and believed I could help other young people who had similar backgrounds to mine. This was the deciding factor in putting myself through the process.
Initially, I worked for this charity on a part-time basis as I finished my Honours Degree. On completion of my degree I was offered a full-time job. I had enjoyed the work and was progressing well, I had taken up many training opportunities and felt I was doing good work. I accepted the offer. I was developing well as a worker and was promoted within the year. After a further year, I decided to apply for the new Professional Social Work Master. I applied and was successful at the interview.
The charity allowed me to continue working and I worked nightshift to suit my study pattern. I began the Social Work Master; my first placement was in a multi-cultural family centre. Again, I applied for a disclosure form. Again, I had to sit down with senior management and go through my history and current circumstances. The director, an experienced woman for whom I have a lot of respect, gave me the chance, she too took the risk of allowing me to work with vulnerable groups.
I completed the placement and enjoyed the experience, I was asked if I could come back and complete my second placement there due to having started some work with some of the families who used the service that had went well, continuity was deemed a potentially beneficial thing for all concerned. I received permission from the University even though it was not normally allowed. I agreed to continue working there even though it was over an hour away from my home by train every day and I was continuing to work for the Charity at night.
I was extremely happy and was feeling good about myself and my efforts. It was hard work but the personal rewards and the belief I was doing good made it all worthwhile. I completed the second placement and passed the relevant modules. I believed that I had shown my suitability for the type of work I was training for and that my disclosure would no longer be an issue.
The third and final placement was to take place in the second year of the Master, this placement had to be a statutory placement. Placements were allocated, not chosen. My placement was to be within a Disability Social Work Team. It wasn’t something I would have necessarily chosen but I knew this was the point, to challenge me in an unfamiliar setting, to develop me as a Social Worker. Again, I had a meeting with a senior Human Resources manager from the LA.
I explained my history and spoke of my current circumstances, given my progress, I was confident in being accepted, the success of both my placements and University work gave me reason to believe I would obtain the opportunity. The manager gave me positive feedback and I believed I would start the following week.
This was not to be the case, two days later I received a call from the manager informing me that I was being rejected, that the head of Social Work, the Director, had been informed of the situation and made the decision that the LA could not take the risk of giving me a placement (this was from the self-same Local Authority where I had experienced five years of abusive care, who had turfed me out ill-prepared and alone). What this says about his idea of rehabilitation and recidivism is a question I have pondered on more than one occasion. I was now left without a statutory placement.
Further to this, the University then decided to investigate the situation. I am unsure if they ever knew of my disclosure issues, I now believe there was an initial oversight on my being accepted on the course and they were not aware of it. A mistake on their part would cause me to be put under the microscope again, unnecessarily. I was then called in to a meeting with the head of HR at the University. I again had to discuss my contextual history and current circumstances.
This time, I was not happy, I didn’t feel I was being asked in the process of being offered a chance, I was being judged, I felt somewhat discriminated against. Why now? Why after all the success and hard work was I being questioned and denied opportunity? Would it be like this forever? Would I ever get a job in Social Work? My treatment seemed at odds with what I was being taught, what I was learning in the books on theory I was referring too for my practice. These were the questions running through my head. I was of a mind to quit, the old habit of thinking that I would never be a part of ‘their’ society returned. However, some discussion with trusted individuals soon allowed me to let the ‘dark cloud’ pass and to continue with my own personal development goals.
The University gave me the go ahead to continue, I had received good reports from all concerned and the fact I was currently working for a national charity gave them the confidence that they too could allow me to continue. I don’t think they would have taken the risk had they been aware at the beginning. That question raises its head again, what does the care sector do when faced with this issue?
Is it down to individuals to take risk or should there be a universal process to dealing with this issue? Is it right to continually put someone through such a potentially traumatic experience. Personally, every time I have to relay my story it upsets my well-being for a time. Anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares are all still a part of my life. Like many people, I manage them as best I can.
At this point, I was offered another meeting to try to obtain the statutory placement I needed to complete my studies. I met with two senior Social Workers from a LA Youth Justice Team. The interview went well and they informed me that they would make an appointment with the Director of Social Work in that LA. I subsequently met with the Director and following a frank and honest discussion, he gave me permission to begin the placement. These two professionals took the qualified risk of pushing for my acceptance. They circumvented the usual route and went straight to the Director, they believed it was the right thing to do, that fundamentally, Social Work is about giving second chances. I intended to repay their belief.
The six-month placement went well, I was successful in completing all the necessary University work and had both enjoyed and developed during my time as a student in the team. Working with young people really inspired me and I truly believe my efforts were worthwhile. At the end of the placement I was asked if I wanted a full-time job with the team after graduating. Prior to that experience, I had never wanted to work in a Social Work team. However, I accepted because I valued the work and the team, their confidence in me was important and I felt it wold be a worthwhile opportunity, so I accepted.
This meant I would have to leave my work at the Charity, a very tough decision because I really enjoyed my work and felt both respected and valued in the organisation. After long consideration, I contacted my senior to discuss terminating my employment. A big decision but one I thought was right at the time. I went through the formal interview process with the LA and began putting the necessary life changes in place in preparation.
The following week I received a phone-call. It was from the manager who had been circumvented by the two senior Social Workers in organising a meeting with the Director. He informed me that he had taken the decision to reject my application for the job, that as it was his responsibility and therefore ‘the buck stopped with him’ he would not take that risk. I returned to the Youth Justice Office to be met with a tearful Senior, who apologised and spoke of her inability to alter things. It was outwith her control as this manager had the final decision regardless of any input from the team.
I had no choice to accept. I was devastated, I had been given the chance in a statutory role and had been successful to the point of being offered a job in the team. I believed that I had jumped over the disclosure hurdle for the final time, that it would no longer be anything other than a formality. It now seemed that my past could forever negatively impact on my future. I was beholden to the whims of the individual.
It would always be down to who would take the risk. The process seemed unfair, the system not fit for purpose. Either you are fit to practice or not, why is it down to an individual. I again contemplated quitting social care completely. I went through the attendant period of anxiety, panic attacks and sleepless nights. Again, I must thank the supportive individuals who helped me through that difficult time.
I was fortunate that I had a supportive senior in the charity who encouraged me to progress within that organisation. I did, I went on to become a house manager in a small residential establishment and was also trusted to begin a new service. I was instrumental in organising training and development for the staff team and gave supervision to the House staff. I was putting into practice that which I had learned during my Social Work training. At this point, I was contacted by a former colleague.
She worked for a children and family social work team and they were on the hunt for new staff. I told her I had a disclosure issue so wouldn’t be suitable for a statutory position. She was adamant that it was not a problem. She talked to her Senior and then called me to say that if I could meet with the senior before the interview and explain the situation it was odds on I would be successful as her senior was ‘a great team leader who had her head screwed on’.
I thought I would give it one final chance. I went through my history and current circumstances with that senior. She decided to take the risk, she believed I had done enough to be considered as any other individual applying for the job. I was successful in getting the post. Again, it was down to an individual, the person willing to take the qualified risk. She was a great senior and did/does have her head ‘screwed on’.
I worked in that team for less than a year. I did not enjoy the work. The financial situation in that LA meant that the job was pressurised. I left to take up another opportunity. Today, I am a teacher. I teach, amongst other places, as an occasional lecturer at a school for Social Workers and Social Educators. I went on to complete a master’s in social research and have recently contributed a proposal to the Scottish Government relating to the Education of Children and Young People looked after at home or in kinship care. I am in a happy and stable relationship, we have two small boys. I have continued to develop as a human being throughout the last twenty or so years with no further contact with the criminal justice system outwith that of my professional career.
Those people who took a calculated risk can be assured that they made a good choice for me and hopefully for others. However, the question remains, why should it be like this? I tell my story to stimulate debate and to demonstrate that those who at one point in their lives seem to be far, far away from success and a crime-free existence, can, with support, become productive members of society.
I had to rely on people taking a risk, taking a chance, on me. I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing, to leave someone’s potential for success in the hands of an individual and their personal views. I have made some suggestions to those deliberating change to the system and I hope they see the value in exploring them carefully. I also hope recounting some of my history can assist in the important discussion as to how disclosure issues impact on the very real lives of people.