Sunday, August 10, 2008

CRB CHECKS or FEEDING THE HUNGRY?


One of my occassional parishioners is the Diocesan Child Protection Officer, not only does she protect children but also "vulnerable" adults. She told me this morning that her brief for such adults also extended to the people we assist on our soup run. So someone who is on the streets with mental health problems or an addiction or because they are a asylum seeker, or ex-prisoner, or just homeless is classified as "vulnerable".


This means that our volunteers have to agree to a Criminal Records Bureau check, that means that her diocesan office gets to know if someone has a criminal record, if their offence is likely to endanger a child or vulnerable adult I receive notification and inform the person their services are no longer required.


Well, this parish is a melting pot, people have "pasts", that they don't want revealed. In my eight years here we have had exiled politicians who feared for their lives from subsequent regimes, former members of the IRA and others on witness protection schemes, people who have come to Brighton to change identities, people who have had notorious pasts which they want to forget or to be forgotten. We also have people who are resident here for just a few months, I estimate 70% of our congregation moves within 6 months, I think a CRB check takes about that time to complete, until it is done the volunteer shouldn't be volunteering, fine in most parts of our diocese were communities are reasonable stable, here it just doesn't work. Volunteers are difficult to come by, because temporary residents have little commitment to our community. Our Soup Run operates 7 days a week and on average feeds about 30-40 people a night, we have a small core of helpers, plus anyone else we can cajole or beg to help out, some of our volunteers come for a few nights, others appear for awhile then dissappear. Some are people who were once fed by the Soup Run and are now feeding others, some are doing it in reparation, as a self imposed penance almost, for things that have happened in the past, some as act of thanksgiving, one or two, in the past, because they are illegal asylum seekers, who the government forbid to work, this alone gave them some dignity of giving, and they are the last people who would want the authorities looking at their status.


When the diocese made us introduce these checks for various liturgical ministries almost a quarter of my parishioners refused to agree to them and had to give up what they were doing, that created serious difficulties.


I know that if we asked our Soup Run helpers to sign up for a CRB check a much larger number than that will refuse. I know too that it would be almost impossible to get new volunteers, by the time their check had been processed they would have left the parish.


It is true that many of the people who come to be fed are indeed vulnerable, they wouldn't come to building or somewhere enclosed, they come to an open space because can get away if they fear a threat. They pick up their sandwich, soup, a cup of coffee and bit of fruit and shuffle off. After a few nights sleeping in a doorway or an abandoned car, the most vulnerable develope a certain wariness of their fellows and anyone who might help, including any perceived threat from the helpers..


A couple of weeks ago I thought the biggest threat to this work of Christ was the povery of our parish, but God's providence has sorted that out for a few months at least, it is sad that now the threat comes from the diocese. If we are rigourous in our implementation of the diocesan demands we will have to stop our work, the most vulnerable in our community will go hungry. In Brighton women and boys can normally find something to sell if they are in real need, but as one young nineteen year old lad once told me, he was so hungry and cold that if it wasn't for our souprun, he would have done anything in one of Brighton's public lavatories just to have been able to fill his belly.


It would be less than magnanimous to ask, as many priests do, who our protection policies are actually protecting, is it the vulnerable or the bishops and the diocesan finances.

Unless we can find a middle way, we have to choose, either to opt out of our diocesan policy on this issue, which apparently means any legal claims devovle directly on me, and the pittance I put away for my old age, or we follow the directives of our Child Protection Office which means we will have to stop our Soup Run, except possibly on the the second and third Wednesday of each month, and ignore Christ's imperative to "feed the hungry".


Today, before I heard this, I preached on "taking risks to reach Christ", it would be hypocritical to stop and I would fear the judgement of God.

23 comments:

Henry said...

I have never thought that checks were the answer. It is a matter of establishing good procedures, both to protect the vulnerable against possible abuse, and to protect the helpers against possible false accusations and indeed, for their general protection and safety.

This needs to be thought through. CRB checks are a kneejerk response. In any case, as the advertisements warn, past results are not necessarily a guide to future performance.

Michael Petek said...

" . . . former members of the IRA . . . people who have come to Brighton to change identities, people who have had notorious pasts which they want to forget or to be forgotten."

Ideal candidates for the French Foreign Legion we talked about earlier.

nickbris said...

Well said Father Ray,THEY will not be happy until we are all on some data-base or other.

There is a lot of talk about how bad it is in China or Burma or even Cuba but this counntry is becoming the most controlled country in the world.

Somehow we have to fight this nonsense,if somebody wants to do the right right thing and feed the hungry in their own time then they will have to refuse to go along with these dictatorial EDICTS.It is just like NAZI GERMANY when sections of the community were forced to wear Insignia to denote their differences.

Just ignore this COBBLERS

Laurence said...

The CRB measures are meant to be about CHILD protection. Just how much damage can an adult do to another adult surrounded by other adults when he or she is, after all, there to feed them out of good will and the love of God. Yes, the homeless are vulnerable, but by God, they're also pretty streetsmart too - they have to be!

Father said...

It's not about 'protection' these days - 'they' call it 'safeguarding', apparently.

It is this awful business (Nay, it is now a growth industry - there's good money to be made in safeguarding!) that makes me walk past a distressed child sobbing in the street who has obviously misplaced her parent(s), makes me cautious about answering the door if I am not expecting someone, keeps me out of the servers' sacristy and off the school playground.....

Oh, and the salaried, episcopally appointed diocesan safegaurding czars, invested with power over anyone who is anything to do with the Church in that diocese, almost to a woman non-Catholics who understand little of parish life or the Church, assure us that they don't want to stop priests doing their job or impede the works of the Church.

miss book said...

Dear Fr., if I was in your parish, I would stop putting money in the collection at Mass,some of which goes to fund diocesan schemes which keep part-time Catholics in lucrative posts.Then I would take legal and financial advice on how best to support my P.P. and pay the tax on my contribution, if necessary.

Ponte Sisto said...

I'm sorry to read about this, but not surprised. Thank God for all these volunteers, regardless of their past.

gemoftheocean said...

God Bless you for your courage in doing the right thing, Father.

Newminster said...

CRB checks are meaningless. In time they will effectively eliminate volunteering, a situation which I fear will suit our lords and masters in Whitehall only too well.
I have no wish to seem paranoid but the last 10 years has seen a greater slide into totalitarianism in this country than ever before.
This is only a another stealthy way of doing it.

GOR said...

Bless you Father, for your courage! But it shouldn't all be put on your shoulders. The bishops and the dioceses should be standing up to this and saying a resounding NO!

Government interventions are thwarting the work of the Church in many countries - and not just totalitarian ones! Here in the US Catholic Hospitals have had to fight state mandates to permit abortions. Catholic charities have been told they must facilitate adoptions to same-sex 'couples', or else...

This has resulted in some diocesan charities shutting down their adoption services altogether. While we pay lip service to 'separation of Church and State' here in the US, governments - both State and Federal - are infringing more and more on the rights and duties of the Church.

The hierarchy, as a body, has to step up and oppose this vigorously. They have the clout and should have the resources to fight this. It shouldn't be put on the shoulders of individual parish priests to run interference on this and bear the risk of legal sanctions.

big benny said...

The difficulty is that people who want to do the wrong thing are often attracted to activities like these because they provide them an air of authority with ready access to vulnerable adults and/or children. CRB checks are also there to give staff some protection since some service users will be liable to making false allegations (ie, vicarious trauma). Many individuals living rough will have learning disabilities, serious mental health issues (eg schizophrenia), prone to violent or volatile behaviours or are just plain desperate which does make them incredibly vulnerable. It's not just a matter of what someone can do to someone when others are also around but that they can build up trust and make contact outside their voluntering duties; or use the information gained in their capacity for dubious purposes at other times.

You would be amazed at the number of staff (paid or voluntary) working as 'carers' who have been discovered to have (relevant) criminal records such as sexual assault or financial fraud. I have come across quite a few in the last few years which is surprising because you would think the system would deter would be offenders from taking the risk. CRB checks on there own are not a solution but they do ensure that proper protocols and procedures are followed to vet staff and volunteers. Almost all the cases of abuse i have been involved with (some extremely serious resulting in prosecution) have involved individuals who were not checked thoroughly due to the failures of the organisations they were working for (eg not even basic references were taken up). Often these were temporary workers where the organisers thought it wasn't worth the while. Sometimes individuals will decline a CRB check for valid reasons or understandable fears but so also will many with something more sinister to hide be frightened away. Who can tell?.

It's also very important to report all incidents (credible or less so) to the police for investigation and logging. Many of the less well intended staff/volunteers do a 'moonlight flit' when something suspicious ocours or concerns are raised. In a recent case of geriatric sexual abuse (with a lady with dementia)and finincial deception i came across, it was revealed after investigation that the agency staff member involved had done the same thing on many previous occasions but escaped detection by agreeing to leave, handing in his notice or simply disappearing. We discovered this after the event just by telephoning the previous employers on the application form (which the service involved evidently hadn't bothered to do). Had these incidents been reported at the time, they would have been logged on the CRB check (which wasn't done anyway) and he would never have been employed or accepted as an agency worker in the first place.

CRB checks are definately a bind and there were certainly prolonged delays in the past. I, for example, was delayed from taking up a job for 4 months once. On another occasion I couldn't do any clinical work for 2 months upon starting a locum post. However most checks currently seem to be taking less than the 6 weeks target although if you are not a UK citizen or have many previous addresses this can complicated matters. This is partly because computer systems are being linked rather than having to write to and collate info from each seperate police authority in the country. If you've taken up references (which I recommend) and have taken reasonable precautions it could be possible to get waiting volunteers to do other preparatory/backroom activities while awaiting CRB clearance (eg shopping, preparing food, kitchen cleaning, driving, administration/organisation etc) without direct contact with the service users. This might be wise anyway (ie a progression from backroom activities to front line duties) just so you can get a sense of an individual before investing them with greater responsibility or less supervision. Alternatively, it could be possible to arrange shifts so that there is always someone with a CRB check on duty with those without (call them team leaders, volunteer supervisors, whatever). These would be the more regular volunteers, individuals who have demonstrated some commitment and have earned some level of trust. It helps too to have someone identified as more senior so that volunteers feel accountable and know that they cannot do whatever they like (often maverick volunteers attempt amateur counselling etc which they are not qualified to do). I'd put in other safeguards too like no volunteer should be alone with a service user, and placing volunteers in pairs for working (this for their own safety too, and to provide collaboration in the event of an allegation). The idea being that new volunteers are also placed with someone more trusted to keep an eye over what they do and where they are. Keep a log of all incidents or unusual events too (however innocent they seem at the time) - sometimes suspicions are only raised when you consider a pattern of unusual occurences. It's a matter of risk assessment really - i don't mean that in the poncy bureaucratic meaning - but thinking through where the greatest risks are and taking some common sense safeguards to protect everyone (volunteers, service user and organisation). If you can demonstrate that you have taken reasonable precautions, have good policies that you follow diligently then you should be ok. I'm sure you do most of these suggestions anyway so it's maybe just a matter of formalising the details. I'd caution dispensing with checks per se. It's just this kind of situation (eg transient population, outreach work with disposessed needy individuals) where potential offenders will take the chance of slipping through the net to take advantage at opportune moments (it's low risk, potentially high gain for them).

I do appreciate the many difficulties though and the irritations at the complexities involved. But perhaps if you can reorganise how volunteers are appointed duties and how they are grouped, you can find a way forward. I find that most individuals are reasonable and understand when you explain the complexities and risks.

John said...

It's the same here in Australia.I have had to have a "Working with Children Clearance" just because there are altar servers on the altar when I am fulfilling my role as an Acolyte. The fact that I have spent most of my life teaching children in schools (when we didn't have to have such clearance) made no difference.

JARay

Adrienne said...

As a Director of Religous Education I am required to have a Criminal Background Check as do all the teachers. I am also required to conduct(at the request of the diocese), a class with the parents and the kids and show videos that make me squirm with embarrassment.

I finally told Father that this was all ridiculous. "We're not the problem nor did we cause the problem. Best speak to the Bishops (including ours!)"

So far I've been the obedient servant to the wishes of the Bishop. For this and many other reasons I quit as DRE two weeks ago. Let them find some nice Protestant to teach the kids their Catholic faith. That's really what they want........

Fr Ray Blake said...

BB,
Your suggestions wouldn't work!

The money to feed the hungry and the people to do it, it all depends on what God sends us that day or at least that month.

Delia said...

I worked for Crisis at Christmas, and no one asked for a CRB check. Stick to your guns, Father! May God bless you for all that you do.

Gladiatrix said...

Dear Father

Not an ideal situation to be in, as a start I would suggest contacting the local office of the Law Society and asking if any of the local lawyers are practising Catholics. If they are they might be willing to provide you with some free advice.

In the meantime, I suggest you also look into obtaining quotes for indemnity and legal expenses insurance.

You could also set up a paypal account on your blog so that people could donate if they wished to.

richard said...

The salaries that CRB officers are paid are so high, circa 40k, that it is no surprise that they need to raise revenue by imposing more checks.

Wanderwide said...

Father, some of the concerns you have voiced are also discussed in "Licensed To Hug: How child protection policies are poisoning the relationship between the generations and damaging the voluntary sector". This study by Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow was published this year by Civitas, The Institute for the Study of Civil Society. I gather that it can be ordered at
http://www.civitasonline.org.uk/acatalog/Parents.html

Ttony said...

Father

you could ask the Diocesan Curia what alternative arrangements they suggest you make, and how they suggest you make them.

An Open Letter in your parish newsletter and on your parish blog would be challenging, and suitably discreet not to annoy anybody.

ukok said...

I think it's mad. Jesus didn't require the Apostles to be CRB checked.

I've got to find my CRB report to send off as i'm about to start a voluntary position in another parish school. Of course, the CRB report i currently have for working as a parish catechist in my home parish, doesn't count (even though they have requested it). So they will have to do their own CRB check on me when i start in this new position, but the last one took months to come through. By the time the next application is sent off and it comes through i might not even be working there voluntarily anymore!

It probably isn't practical. But could volunteer parishioners make up the soup and sandwhiches in advance(using thermos and plasic sandhich wraps) and just yourself and whoever else is CRB'd, hand them out?

It would indeed be a terrible shame if you were forced into a position where your parishes endeavours to asist the less fortunate, were unable to continue.

dillydaydream said...

Although I already had a CRB check as a teacher, I had to get another one, to be a scout leader - all within six months - the costs are horrendous for the organisations concerned. All I can suggest is that you share your problem and advertise in newsletters of neighbouring parishes with stable populations for people who have already gone through the process of being crb checked (e.g. teachers, but also dinner ladies, support staff, part-time/retired people who have no issues with a check - and are not going to be offended. Try to indicate how often they will be expected to attend - maybe just once a month/once a week. Different people have different amounts of time - some will be afraid of an open ended commitment. It really is a shame that the former homeless people cannot give something back and regain their self-respect in this way. CRB checks are no guarantee, in reality. One of our local scout leaders (aged 25) was found out as a user of paedophile computer material when he put his computer in for repair. So checks on their own are never enough. Supervision and rules (never being in a room alone with a person who can accuse you; never allowing off-site relationships between helpers and helpees) are much more to the point.

Bob said...

No-one can stop volunteers freelancing, and acting for the greater good by operating independently or at arms length from the parish. It's not as if the parish or diocese is appointing the volunteers to put them into contact with the vulnerable, it's a personal choice people are making themselves.

Surely the parish can continue to provide resources for an independent soup-run, just much as it gives donations to any other charity without having to be responsible for the status of every member of their staff.

However well meant the controls are supposed to be, the whole picture must be looked at, and the overall effect on the poor and vulnerable considered. If following the regulations to the letter without flexibility means they are left worse off, that's a greater abuse that cannot be tolerated.

elizabeth said...

The success of running these required checks (they are required, so we must get over it if we want our parishes to survive) depends on approaching the volunteers in a very positive manner and having a good relationship with them, appreciating them - or you will lose them. You must say first, "THANK YOU for your ministry." It is not about not trusting us/volunteers, it really is about the children and vulnerable. i had very few problems and every single volunteer did go through with this. i lost no one - except a few we steered them away from ministry or into other appropriate ministry due to criminal records of various seriousness. Most volunteers in US realize the necessity of these, as we have had problems with abuse in the church. The volunteers must be assured of the privacy of the check, who is doing it, and who alone will see it. i was able to say, "Only i see this. Or, only one specialist sees this." That any records are kept under lock and key. Finally, our volunteers are at the end of the process glad to have the checks, because everyone in the community KNOWS they have undergone them and they have cleared. It is a huge relief after having newscams outside of our parish several times for former priests' priestly abuse) - all volunteers subjected in humility to these and then gladly continued their ministry as they love their ministry and the church. I think they felt they were helping to stop the bad accounts of our church and help it to stand tall. We all refused to let the secular world and the sins of some stop our ministries. We hung tough. Fr's parish in this blog is transient and ours is not: he has a whole set of difficulties we did not. But those parishes that are stable, should stop complaining and do it. i have no answers for Father, except that Fr. himself may need to address the volunteers and parishioners - or if not Fr., then a humble person who is highly trusted by the volunteers and known well to them. Stay upbeat, know you are protecting others who really ARE vulnerable (much abuse is with adults and teens as well folks.