Maybe Everyone in England DOESN’T Need a Background Check

Hi Readers — Things are roiling in England where it seems the powers that be are finally reconsidering their bizarre policy of requiring background checks for ANYONE having ANY contact with kids. That included authors coming to speak in schools, moms (or “mums”) volunteering to work as class parents, field trip chaperones — in all, 9 million people were required to get checked. Or they were about to be, anyway, until a few days ago when the “Home Secretary” made remarks to the effect of: What a paranoid policy! Let’s get dump it!

This unleashed a flood of comments, pro and con. So here’s where we pick up the story, via The Guardian:

Headteachers also said the checks would “ruin school life” by putting in jeopardy foreign exchange trips and affecting parents who help out with school plays and sports teams.

The home secretary said she had halted the implementation of the scheme because it had become clear it was a draconian measure.”We were finding the prospect of a lot of people who do very good work up and down the country, were actually saying: ‘I can’t be bothered to if you are going to treat me like that’,” said May.

“You were assumed to be guilty, in a sense, until you were proven innocent and told you could work with children. By scaling it back we will be able to introduce a greater element of common sense. What we have got to do is actually trust people again.”

How I wholeheartedly agree with the home secretary! (And how I NEED a home secretary…but I think that’s another story.) Anyway, inevitably her remarks prompted a backlash, including the usual, “It’s a good day to be a predatory pedophile!” Also inevitably, the story ran with the adorable photo of two English girls who disappeared in 2002, and whose fate prompted the whole background check mania.

I can’t figure out exactly where things stand now, but I am very glad the “scheme” is getting a second look, rather than just steamrolling forward. The idea behind the checks is very much the same idea as in the post below this one, about the 14-year-old boy arrested for trying to help a toddler find her mom: Assuming the very worst motives of ANYONE involved with children in ANY capacity.

Makes for a dark world of suspicion, fear and false accusations. But I guess it’s good for the background checking companies!  — Lenore

45 Responses

  1. I thought it was still going ahead because my employment agency got in touch last week and said they would be sending info about filling in forms. And of course sending off the fee to be registered. And then there is the regular criminal record check and the fee for that too.

  2. The Archdiocese of Chicago has similar rules for school volunteers. My kids just spent 3 years at a local Catholic school. I never once volunteered for any activity.
    To volunteer (even to stuff envelopes in the office) you have to have a full police background check and take a 3 hour training course. I couldn’t even volunteer at the church bingo on Thursday nights because there might be a child there and you have to be Virtus trained to be near the children. WTF!

    Then they complained about how none of the parents wanted to volunteer. No kidding. The only time I was ever in the school building in those 3 years were for parent-teacher conferences, open houses and kindergarten graduations (which were held in the school basement).

    I don’t like bashing the Catholic church and schools (I have fond memories of my Catholic schooling…all 13 years of it) but the sad part is the priests and teachers pose the most risk to the kids, not the parent volunteers and they are just as vetted as those parents that go through the background check and training. So what’s the point?

    I mean, really? The people that have a criminal background aren’t going to subject themselves to a background check, they’re just going to snatch a kid if that’s what’s on their mind. And all the good, honest people are held up as guilty until proven otherwise and even then are still considered suspect.

  3. It’s not quite the bizarre volte face you seem to portray here. Ms May’s criticisms are precisely what most people were saying back when the Labour government proposed the changes — and Ms May herself was sitting on the opposition benches.

    In the intervening period, we’ve had a general election, and this would be just one of the many illiberal and counter productive pieces of legislation the new coalition government is putting in a “Great Repeal Bill”

  4. Wendy – Until they actually pass the repeal bill the mandatory deadlines will be adhered to (technically, the repeal bill could fail and then it would still be a legal requirement). I suspect most of the employment requirements will be kept – it’s the volunteer requirements that most people balked at.

    I’m not a big fan of Theresa May, but I think she’s spot on here. The whole vetting and barring scheme was a bizarre over reaction, and oddly (for a political decision) almost nobody seemed to actually want it. A few charities that focused on children and vulnerable adults in danger supported it and that was about it.

  5. When I first moved to England, I thought it must be a much more dangerous place (umm… than south central Los Angeles where I lived before?)… I wondered why I felt scared to walk around our (very safe) village at night, why I regarded people on the bus suddenly with suspicion, why I (a previously optimistic person) thought of negative outcomes in almost every situation I encountered. And then I started observing the headlines posted on boards in front of all the newsagents, the newspapers handed out on the tube, the general attitude of the public; and realized the culture of fear is so intense here. It is pretty much assumed that if something bad could happen, it will and all people are guilty unless proven innocent. Now I have a daughter, I am trying to be a free-range parent, but it is difficult. When I read that even trading off with another mom for school pick-up required a background check, I couldn’t quite believe it. I hope things change and I’m so grateful for you to pointing this craziness out.

  6. Jen’s comment raised a question in my mind. I wonder what the statistics are for parents of current students in a program (whether school, scouting, etc.) being the perps against children not their own. I’ll bet it’s a vanishingly tiny percentage of the cases.

  7. we have something in australia called a BLUE CARD. Anyone working with kids or volunteer etc has to have a blue card. Your background is checked, you list previous address etc. THe card lasts for two years and then you have to reapply.

    Everyone in my church has to have one as we are around alot of children. I have had 3 cards already.

    Whilst it mind sound crazy, I think it is good, not that this will protect anyone from child molestors (as that can be anyone) but will stop people with previous convictions lying etc.

    anyway it is pretty simple to get a card, it takes about 8 weeks to get back to you.

  8. @the girl loves to talk…..Why can’t someone with “previous convictions” work with children? What kind of convictions are you talking about? There are plenty of people who did goofy, dumb, or just plain wrong things when they were young, and have grown up to be productive members of society and even to be parents! I can’t believe we think it’s appropriate to tell them they can’t help out in their child’s classroom.

  9. @the girl who loves to Talk – actually the blue card is not as prevalent here as the UK laws, the “working with children” laws are state based. I am an author in Victoria who does talks in schools and I have never needed to get a ‘working with children’ check. I also do reading at my kids’ school (and other less formal participation) and it is not a requirement, not even for parents driving other people’s kids to camp. It’s a school community based on trust, not on anonymous checks. (It is not necessary to get a police check if you are volunteering with a group that includes your own child, though some schools and sports teams have introduced this policy.)

    In Victoria someone with a prior conviction is not excluded from working with children (and I doubt this information could be released to any employer or other third party), only people who are either on the sex offender’s registry or being monitored will fail the check.

    One of the things I don’t like is that the Working with Children check could create a false sense of security and replace a more telling and thorough process of interviewing, checking references, training and observation. Some people who are not registered sex offenders are still not particularly well suited to working with kids for any number of reasons. It’s bureaucracy, not peace of mind.

  10. I should point out that as an author it is illegal for me to be left alone with kids, I am not legally responsible if something should happen (like if a kid threw a chair at another kid’s head or the roof caved in) – and I am sure that must be the same in England. So what would be the point if a working with children check for authors or any other kind of professional visitor to the school? And was it here there was an example of authors having to get checks to Skype with a school? Puh-lease.

  11. Qld, Australia has a Police Check for working with children – volunteers or employees (And when cleared you get a Blue Card). Child pornography rings and abusers who have been caught in this state have included: teachers, policemen and other ‘blue’ card holders. Teachers and policemen have now become exempt from holding a Blue Card. The point is that the Blue Card only tells that you haven’t been caught doing something wrong to children. And this system which is becoming aligned with liability insurance for organisations, is really to say, “our organisation did everything reasonable to prevent child abuse”. While it is important for organisations who may not personally know the people coming to work for them, to ask for a police check, this is only step one. All work with children should be ‘line of sight’. In otherwords adults should avoid being with a child in isolation. Even in a family, this should be limited to clearly defined circumstances where privacy is important. Although even heart to heart conversations can be private without being out of line of sight to a 3rd party, and this can even extend to adolescents exploring their own relationships. If an adolescent hasn’t learnt the skills to speak with a person of the opposite sex in a working team, in a mature manner, they are way outside their own emotional and social capabilities to be in a private one on one with a member of the opposite sex. Difficulties arise in camp settings in which young children may need supervision in toileting etc. I think the best answer is for camp supervisor teams to become close knit, so that camp leaders can organise their team safely. This is important at the other end of the spectrum where a child in a camp setting may come from an abused situation, but later in life might transpose in their memory their camp ‘big brother’ as the abuser. If camp leaders can always support their workers / volunteers because of behavioural policy, then that creates safety for the team. Ultimately, though, the risk of abuse is low. It increases if some environments become more appealing to paedophiles because of the ability for the paedophile to have significant periods of isolation with individual children. And, as Lenore has said, teach children to say to Uncle Bob “Don’t touch me there!!!! I don’t like it!!. Go away!!”. Families might not want Uncle Bob to get put in jail for the first indiscretion especially if it isn’t especially serious but they should know and be clear with Uncle Bob his limits in the family. And the only way to get that information in the family is to have children trained to be open about sexuality, and clear about their responsibilities for their own body. Unfortunately I have known a family where up to 3 generations of girls have become preyed upon because of the resultant taboo around incestuous paedophilia, until the old B.. dies. And that family was a middle class white farming family in which isolation, again, helped the paedophile structure his activity. The reason why abuse seems more prevalent is because people who were abused 60 years ago, are still coming out. The answer: a society that is more open, more interactive, less aggressive, more empathic, less legalistic, but more intelligent about creating cohesion in families and community.

  12. yes In our case it might be cause we might be alone with the children. In our church for childrens sunday school they break into classes and one or two adults might have 5-10 children, so for that reason we all have to have blue cards.

    since almost anyone can get one, I agree with it might make a false sense of safety

  13. lol! I’m a SAHM who just needed a blue card for my volunteer work. I do believe you dont need a blue card to go into your OWN childrens school. Like I can help there (and have numerous times) without a blue card.

    I dont really know if you can or cant if you have had previous child related convictions. I jsut have a card cause i needed it and didnt really look into why, however there must be a reason for it all🙂

    that said in my church there are people who PURPOSELY DONT GET A BLUE CARD so they DONT HAVE TO WORK WITH THE CHILDREN!! lol lol because it means they wont be able to if they dont have the card and they wont get stuck down in the childresn sunday school!!

  14. your questions made me do some reasearch🙂

    here is the website for blue cards if anyone is interested

    http://www.ccypcg.qld.gov.au/employment/index.html

    I dont have the main blue card (you place of employment get it ready for you) I have a Volunteer blue card

  15. I think all this is happening because the Labour Party was recently routed in the British elections. Now the new party is trying to repeal all the Labour Party’s ridiculous laws.

  16. As a daycare administrator in the USA, I had a fabulous cook who unfortunately had to spend 6 months in jail for a crime completely unrelated to children in any way. I was unable to rehire him because if any parent ever got wind that he was an ex-con (even though they LOVED him before) we would have a complete nightmare on our hands. Insane. Absolutely insane!

    Love the site, btw.

  17. I suppose someone has pointed out that the vile monster who killed the two girls mentioned in Lenore’s post had had a background check.

  18. Ian Huntley, the guy who killed the two girls, had not been convicted of any sexual or violent crimes. He had been investigated in the past for sexual offences and had a conviction for riding a motorbike without a licence or insurance.

    It would be unjust to have barred him from working as a school caretaker with allegations on his record anyway. Allegations are not convictions. Innocent until proven guilty.

  19. Actually, on pondering his record I may change my mind on that….

    Wikipedia says: “Following the announcement of Huntley’s conviction, it emerged that various authorities were aware of allegations, from a number of sources, that he had committed one act of indecent assault, four acts of underage sex and three rapes.

    The only one of these allegations that resulted in a charge was a rape, for which he had been remanded in custody, but released when the Crown Prosecution Service ruled that there was not enough evidence for a conviction. Huntley had also been charged with burgling a neighbour in Grimsby, but he was not convicted, although the charge remained on file.”

    With a series of allegations like that, from different sources, perhaps it would not be unreasonable to deny him the caretaker’s job. Tricky – it feels wrong to treat a person as guilty when he has not been proved guilty, but still….

    Anybody have an opinion on this?

  20. Wendy – Until they actually pass the repeal bill the mandatory deadlines will be adhered to (technically, the repeal bill could fail and then it would still be a legal requirement). I suspect most of the employment requirements will be kept – it’s the volunteer requirements that most people balked at.

    I assumed that too. I can’t work out what this covers that the CRB check doesn’t

  21. I think the degree of vetting that was proposed was actually dangerous to children’s wellbeing because if it had become the an entrenched thing, it would have done huge damage to attitudes among communities, families, kids… they’re bad enough as it is without a system that effectively says that people are danger to kids until proved safe by ‘the authorities’

    It would have affected kids’ health, by cutting the number of volunteers available for activities. It would have affected their mental health by entrenching an attitude that any adult who came near them has to be ‘proved to be safe’. It would have created false confidence anyway, in individuals who had simply managed not to be caught abusing children.

    As to Huntley – yes, the question of unsubstantiated accusations is a difficult one. I think alarm bells ought to ring when there have been accusations from totally unrelated people (ie, it can’t possibly be some kind of set-up), but then there’s the problem of keeping these things on record as they can still ruin lives and careers.

    I don’t know if one way to deal with them might be that the police keep a record, but on the understanding that unsubstantiated accusations do NOT come into play and are not flagged up for checks when an individual is applying for a job. However, if the police do register another accusation against this person, they step investigations up a notch in view of the previous one. That would mean that people don’t get barred for jobs just because, say, a girl who got annoyed about being told off told someone her teacher touched her breasts, just to get back at him, but it would mean there was follow-up if things start to look suspicious.

  22. First time I’ve heard of a blue card. So ‘in Australia’ is not entirely true .maybe ‘in Queensland’ is more accurate.

  23. The Blue card system ini QLD is in place to stop people with previous child based convictions (pedophiles, drug convictions related to selling to minors, violence etc etc)from entering into areas of employment or volunteer work which could potentially place children at risk. The system checks peoples history and issues them with the card as long as they haven’t been charged or convicted of a child based crime (there is an appeals system in place if people feel they should be heard). From that point on as part of the documentation you sign – if you are charged or convicted of a crime related to children then the Childrens Commission is informed and your blue card is revoked (your employer is told that your card is revoked).

    This is in place to protect children from predetors who use employment or volunteering to groom children to commit child based crimes. IT DOES NOT!!! take the place of parental vigilance or excuse people from ignoring suspect or inapproriate behaviour. The basic rule of thumb is to not just leave your children but to check out the people and situation until you are comfortable with it. Parents volunteering in schools with their own children’s classes or in the community with their own children do not require a blue card but do if they are working with children that are not their own.

    Teachers and Police and Nurses etc do require the equivilant of a working with children check – it’s done through their own boards of registration – the new legislation was brought in because at one point even though a teacher may be registered they still required a blue card if they were volunteering etc – a doubling up of resources and cost inefficient. The working with children check stemed from an enquiry into Foster care allegations where many foster parents in queensland were found to be abusing their charges mentally, physically and sexually. There were not enough checks and balances.

    The age old adage is in play – if you haven’t done anything wrong then it shouldn’t be a problem!! It shouldn’t reduce the volunteer pool at all and if it does then did we want those people working with our children anyway??

    The idea isn’t to assume everyone is out to harm children until proven otherwise nor is it to state that these people won’t ever harm children – it is merely a check in the process of protecting our children. Frankly I would rather have it in place than not.

  24. Most of the comments here assume that someone’s record would be revealed because they had a previous conviction. SO OFTEN they do not.
    I deeply believe in free-range parenting, but as this type of question is institutional in nature, and as a school administrator and a parent, let me assure you that things can get VERY complicated very quickly. I can’t say anything more, except—please don’t judge schools too harshly if they have a reasonable background check policy. We have one for overnight chaperones, for example, and an agreement that no other volunteers will be alone with the children. I’m satisfied with that as a middle ground.

  25. OK, I’m probably being thick and missing some obvious point here, but when it comes to vetting parents to do things with other people’s kids…

    …isn’t the simple fact that they have custody of their own children indicative that they aren’t known sex offenders?

    Presumably nobody seen as a clear and present danger to children will be allowed custody of their own? So if their kids are living with them, they can’t be sex offenders, hence no need for vetting.

  26. The fact that it would have been unjust to bar Ian Huntley from working with children on the basis of allegations shows precisely why background checks are worth a LOT less than they might appear. I agree that people shouldn’t be nailed for accusations, but that just goes to show that a background check that respects the distinction between accusation and conviction (as it should) is WORTHLESS in this kind of situation. That doesn’t mean they’re completely worthless — they keep out the convicts. But it probably shows that they’re not worthwhile enough to justify them. It would be like never letting your kid walk to the end of the driveway alone in a good neighborhood because some children somewhere have been abducted. Oh, wait, some people DO think that’s a good idea.

  27. “Presumably nobody seen as a clear and present danger to children will be allowed custody of their own? So if their kids are living with them, they can’t be sex offenders, hence no need for vetting.”

    No. In my old neighborhood, we had three neighbors on the block who were listed in the sex offenders directory due to old statutory rape convictions (basically, each was convicted in their late teens/early 20s and were now in their 30s+) and they all had kids.

    They wouldn’t pass a background check to volunteer in schools.

  28. It occured to me this might be the case. But it says something that they had custody of children… regardless of the conviction, they weren’t regarded by authorities as a clear and present danger to children or young people.

    So that says something about the absurdity of the law in many ways.

  29. “Anyway, inevitably her remarks prompted a backlash, including the usual, ‘It’s a good day to be a predatory pedophile!’ ”

    I just gave myself a headache from rolling my eyes too hard.

  30. I’m with Claudia on this one. I’ve never understood the point of doing background checks of parents before they can volunteer… quite obviously, there’s nothing in their record that is going to show up in the check, or they wouldn’t have custody. doesn’t mean they are not pedophiles, but it does mean there’s nothing on their record, no?

    However, I am completely for not permitting the volunteers to be alone w/ any of the children — that seems like good common sense to me.

  31. So true. I agree…Here in America, we need to ease up as well.

  32. Claudia and mvb,
    Can’t say much…but believe me, there are things people have done, are known to have done, admit doing, that would make free-rangers or anyone hesitate to allow children near them.
    And, the stupid absurdity of it is, as Pentamom has adeptly pointed out, it wouldn’t show up on a background check. This I know to be true.

  33. Oh… and those people have children….

  34. mvb – You are wrong. There are parents at my school who have been convicted of crimes against children. Had those children removed. Then had another kid. Unless they are convicted of hurting that child they have custody.

    My neighbor raped a 12 yo. Then had his own kid. They were allowed to keep custody. (note he was mid 20’s so not a case of 2 preteens having sex)

    Seems having as many kids as you want is a basic human right they can’t be deprived of. We also have parents who are violent gang members. When they are checked in an alert comes up. They all by law have to be given access to their child’s classroom, but we can require they be escorted by an admin or cop.

    If they have warrents out they stay away. The check in system alerts the cops about certain types of offenders including those with active warrents on them.

  35. “Seems having as many kids as you want is a basic human right they can’t be deprived of.”

    Not entirely. I’ve known of cases where the child was removed upon birth. But it takes a LOT for that to happen, so yeah, it shouldn’t be assumed that those who have custody of their kids are officially clean with respect to kids.

  36. Chiming in from a smallish city in Canada. I have to get a background check every year in order to volunteer at one of my girls schools. It is in a middle class relatively safe neighborhood where fear seems to reign. My other girl goes to school in a lower class neighborhood on the outer edge of the inner city. No background check required. That neighborhood has more children walking and riding their bike, less complaints from parents about annoyances like no parking (even though there is less parking there) and fewer decisions made based on the fear that something might actually happen. The reality from the crime stats for the 2 communities is there is more chance of something happening in the less fearful neighborhood but still not enough chance to cause us to keep our children locked inside.

  37. You also can’t assume that the volunteer parent actually has custody of their kids. Being a non-custodial parent doesn’t preclude anyone from volunteering at school.

  38. I guess I’m confused about the concern over “non-custodial parents”. I have known many divorced couples in which one parent has custody during the week, and the other gets the kid(s) on weekends. Or they switch every week, or every month. Are we really saying that because a man or woman doesn’t have physical custody of the kids at that very moment, they shouldn’t be allowed contact with any other child?

  39. Beth,
    I think people are confusing Non-custodial with Parental Rights Terminated.

    Non-Custodial The parent with whom the child(ren) do not reside a majority of the time. This is still a parent just one that has physical custody less than 50% of the time.

    Parental Rights Terminated – They are no longer a parent. This could be someone who has given a child up for adoption. In the context of this discussion is an abusive parent, who has lost all rights to his/her children.

    There are usually court orders keeping this person away from the child. Schools MUST have copies of the court paper or by law we have to give parents access to their children. That is why my school works closely with the battered women’s shelter and the foster care homes to keep all this paper work up to date. With the paperwork we can call the cops on this person and have them arrested for being on school grounds.

  40. Sorry, I wasn’t saying we should be suspicious of people who don’t have custody of their kids – I’m talking about people who don’t have custody because of child protection concerns.

    Mind you, that’s currently the situation of a friend of mine whose daughter, who has been very happy spending time with him, is now being kept away from him because her mother, his ex partner, is claiming she said he has hit her.

    But regarding the fact that some parents are allowed to keep custody of children they have seriously abused, and given I know some people who are denied access to children for truly spurious or unsound reasons, it just goes to show how screwed up the child protection system is.

  41. I had to be fingerprinted by the FBI so I could teach in any school in Maine. Teaching is such hard work that I believe only someone really dedicated to helping improve the students’ lives would commit to something like that. So I found it incredibly offensive to be treated like a criminal.

    Here in Massachusetts every time I want to do anything with an organization working with kids I have to do a CORI background check each time for each place. It ends up to having around 10 background checks a year. Very irritating. I even had to have it done at a church where I used to go in order to help out with vacation Bible school, yet they allowed a young man, who had repeatedly been put in jail for beating up his mother, and for dealing drugs, to work with the children, with no CORI check. (Unfortunately the young man knew the right words to say for people to think his heart was changed for the better and that he was contrite but sadly he never changed his ways.)

  42. “Teaching is such hard work that I believe only someone really dedicated to helping improve the students’ lives would commit to something like that.”

    crystalblue, it might seem that way, but surely you have to realize that professional teachers HAVE done things that don’t reflect a desire to improve the students’ lives? Like sexual and other abuse, and failure to put forth a good effort on their jobs, and all kinds of things that are harmful? Of course these are the exceptions, but you can’t pretend that just because it takes dedication to be a teacher, there are no such things as teachers who do bad things to kids, and that therefore there should be NO consciousness of the possibility.

  43. Now, I’m in the sort of profession where you would think I would have to have working with children checks, police checks, etc.

    There is one advantage of the BlueCard system. It is a card you can use across the board. Contrast this with New South Wales where you have to have separate working with children checks and police checks for each organization. A few years back I had I think 4 police checks in a month. Very inefficient.

    Downside of BlueCard system is that it took me 11months from date of application to get mine. No, I do not have any convictions, not even minor driving ones!
    As well as the cost. In last 12 months I will have spent about $500 on various checks.

    They only tell you that the person hasn’t been caught.

  44. While I do agree this can go to far (a mom who with 1 hr per week contact inside a classroom? seriously?), in our community I actually think they could be better about background checks.

    There are a number of child sports programs here that use parents, usually dads, as coaches and I cannot understand why some of these men are still allowed to work with children. I get that they are sometimes desperate for volunteers but the people in charge of these leagues are letting men with histories of cursing at young children, getting arrested at games, getting in fisticuffs with other parents, harassing ex-wives, domestic battery, etc. make kids & other parents miserable.

    Families who participate in more than one of these sports know who these men are; the rest of us are blindsided by their inability to control their anger. The organizers act like they had no idea it was going to be a problem even though these fathers, and occasionally mothers, have a reputation for abusive antics all across town. At this point, I don’t even worry whether my kids’ coaches are pedophiles. I worry that they are a-holes who bully little kids. Maybe a simple background check to determine if you’ve ever been arrested at a pee-wee football game would keep my kid from being subjected to your idiocy for an entire baseball season.

    Or maybe just a box you can check off… “I am man enough to know you can’t say the F-word to an 8 yr old” so the coaches and families with decent behavior could be lumped together. Adult insanity is screwing up childhood in so many ways.

  45. You can search criminal background records free for the public by typing in a name, date of birth and address. You can even check via social security number in some instances which will give you very detailed and accurate results. To find the best website to run criminal background checks, all you need to do is type in a search into any good search engine and then you will be able to compare websites in order to get the best service possible

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