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How to open our doors without leaving the security chain on...

Last week I tweeted about engaging volunteers from the community who identify with offending, or are ex offenders themselves. I should have realised at the time that I would end up blogging to our growing community of volunteer managers and gurus for its wisdom on a Thoughtful Thursday. Over the past few months I’ve come to relish checking my twitter feed on a Thursday. I love that #ttvolmgrs participants are open and honest, challenge each other and take time to offer support. As a lone worker in a large organisation it really helps me to feel connected and increases my confidence. So this week, I’m the one blogging and asking questions, and I really hope you’ll all be up for the challenge of sharing your ideas and experience.

My organisation has recently started working in prisons across the north of England delivering housing, homelessness, debt and benefit advice to prisoners. This work is made possible by the support and guidance of teams of peer volunteer advisors (from the prison population).

As we develop, we want to look at engaging more volunteers out in the communities where we operate, and most importantly welcome more volunteers who are affected or associated with offending in to our activities. When I say “affected or associated with offending” – I’m talking about ex-offenders, families of offenders, those who have an interest in the criminal justice system and even those affected by crime. As a fellow #ttvolmgrs contributor explained to me ( thanks @uncollectiveconsciousness ) – calling someone an ‘ex-offender’, whilst factual, is rather limiting. Yes, it’s helpful to be able to classify a person when writing our reports and evaluations, but not when we are talking to people, families and communities. I was a child once (a long time ago) but I’m not classified as an ‘ex-juvenile’! Categorising someone by previous actions isn’t always a great way to move forward.

My job involves helping staff to engage, support and encourage volunteers across services and I’m being approached by more and more colleagues who either want to try to involve more people who are rebuilding their lives after release from prison or are worried about how they go about it. The concerns are two sided – from wanting to support people in the best way, to feeling nervous about exposing the organisation to ....‘dun dun dun’.... RISK! Although we have risk assessments and policies coming out the proverbial, and we use and follow guidance on CRB checks etc, it feels to me like it’s a game of spinning plates. The plates in question being; making sure volunteers have access to useful and valid opportunities whilst being supported to volunteer, whilst managing risk, and also protecting our clients who are often vulnerable.

Now before you all shout (I can see someone with their hand up already) – I know these are the plates that we are always spinning as volunteer managers, co-ordinators and employers of paid staff, but I’m searching for insight and comment as to which one of the plates is made of unbreakable plastic and which one already has a few cracks in it. (Apologies for the analogy.)

On Attend’s website there is a very helpful section on ex-offender volunteering I heartily recommend anyone interested takes a good look around (the rest of it’s pretty smart too...) So, this is a great resource, and answers many questions, but what I’d really like to ask us to share is whether engaging ex-offenders is something that you have experience of, want to have experience of or are possibly limited in your ability to do so?

I guess I’m wondering things like this..... (I’m going to pop a few ‘labels’ in so please forgive me)

  • Do you currently have or encourage ex-offenders to volunteer with you?

  • What kind of things do they get involved with?

  • Have you experienced any difficulties with this?

  • If you don’t, what are the reasons surrounding this?

  • Have you any experiences of building the confidence of others to support ex-offenders?

And the real humdinger for me....

  • Offering excellent opportunities regardless of the limitations of a criminal record, whilst protecting vulnerable clients. (It’s a tough one I know....)

I realise that not all of you Thoughtful Thursday chaps will be engaging with ex-offenders, but perhaps there are issues within the post that ring true for other experiences you’ve had? Don’t be shy to share.... If tweeting and hashtags make sense to you – come and talk about it on twitter, and remember to add the hashtag #ttvolmgrs anywhere in your tweet.

Don’t worry if twitter’s not your thing (it’s an acquired taste!) – please add your thoughts to the comments section below this i-volunteer blog.

Really looking forward to hearing from everyone!

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profile thumb for stevemoreton

The X-men angle is worth considering to ensure bear-bits are avoided.

UC highlights that using “Ex” language is unacceptable language when referring to someone, as it keeps them in a disempowered past - and I would have some sympathy for this view .
Although, in some context, individuals themselves do utilise this principle (e.g. I am a recovering alcoholic).
Also, the phrases ex-Army and Ex-Civil Service, would suggest that the term 'Ex' is not inherently derogatory...

So why use the term at all?
I suppose it is about seeking to engage with a category of people, and labelling one category as ex-offenders helps to develop management thinking and strategies around engagement. A sort of stand to hang hats and coats on.

So once an ex-offender engagement strategy is in place, with supporting systems and processes, work can begin with a focus on individuals.

There's no need for these individuals to be overtly aware of the ex-offender label (this is just the 'coat-stand' that makes things hang nicely). They can be treated as individual with their own names and everything(!).

It strikes me that this is what quality volunteer management is about - hiding the processes that support different individuals as volunteers.

If the term ex-offender wasn't allowed however, it would be difficult to encourage the building of the coat-stand...

11th Apr '12 at 08:38
profile thumb for stevemoreton

Good thread - thanks for starting Emma!

I was about to signpost to the work on Attend's website, when I saw you'd already given a link.

A couple of other links are relevant here, particularly as they show inspirational practice from mainstream organisations (rather than those with a specific 'resettlement' remit) engaging with offenders and ex-offenders as volunteers.

The first one pre-dates the CRB check and shows CSVs work with young offenders.

The second one is current day, and highlights how Sue Ryder are engaging with ex-offenders.

The case studies try to show what the management practices and attitudes are that make this all possible.

10th Apr '12 at 15:19
profile thumb for uncollectiveconsciousness

I/think feel others have taken inspiration from you, as the responses including my own were in relation to your own pro-active volunteer management prose; so Emma, credit where credit is due.

10th Apr '12 at 13:42
profile thumb for Emma Corrigan
Emma Corrigan

wow - thank you everyone for such great comments. Glad it was something we could all get our teeth in to. Feel reassured to hear lots of good advice coming through from all corners :)

10th Apr '12 at 10:48

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profile thumb for SimonH

Brilliant weekly blog topic and chat yet again. We're working on developing a volunteers with extra needs network (venn) in Derby, the aim being to highlight barriers, showcase positive case studies and provide best practice models for orgs to follow. Disability, non english speakers, long term u/e & people with criminal convictions are all thrown into the mix at the moment.

Emma's great blog and the replies given here and on twitter have given me some ideas, particularly UC's really interesting ex men point. Proof yet again that this forum really does work.

6th Apr '12 at 08:28
profile thumb for Susan_J_Ellis

Great topic and discussion, but hard to capture in tweets! I just wanted to share something that relates. A few years ago, a volunteer manager called me to ask the following question: "We have an arrangement with the local prison in which we let inmates almost ready for parole do some service with us in things like gardening. Is it OK to say thank you to them?"

I will pause as you consider this question.

I told her that I could not see any circumstances in which it was unacceptable to express appreciation to anyone! We can even thank PAID staff (interesting idea, no?)! What relevance did these people's living arrangement at the time have to whether or not they accomplished something worthwhile while helping at her site?

Of course, this was simply a symptom of the root-cause question: should I approach such helpers as "volunteers"? Without opening that can of worms, the question I pose back to everyone -- as it relates to #ttvolmgrs -- if we enter into ANY relationship with a volunteer (or someone not on our payroll) seeing them as "not like" everyone else, what do we expect will happen? Conversely, if we welcome ALL those who contribute their time, and do so willingly and well, won't that be the start of a genuine relationship?

Rules such as "any criminal record = barred for life" are just wrong. A record may perhaps affect whether someone is given a particular assignment, but not whether they might help in some way.

5th Apr '12 at 20:41
profile thumb for LisaMcD

Scotchmist that's pretty much the process we go through. Assess everything on an individual case basis and make a decision but also adhere to our usual recruitment processes with regard to volunteering.

5th Apr '12 at 17:24
profile thumb for Scotchmist

@Emma_C_Shelter - some great food for thought!
As far as I understand, my organisation has just one “barred” offence and that is a sexual offence against a child or vulnerable adult, whether it be a caution or conviction and regardless of how long ago. We are simply not permitted to recruit volunteers (or paid staff) in this situation.
For all other offences it is a matter of judgement based on an assessment of risk to the clients, the bureau and the volunteer. We ask ourselves lots of questions! What is the risk to clients? How serious was the offence(s) and how relevant to clients’ safety and security? Will the volunteer role present opportunities for the person to re-offend? What supervision arrangements are in place in the bureau – or could be put in place – to further reduce the risk? Could an adviser with a criminal record come into contact with their victim or the victim's family through their work at the bureau? How long ago was the offence committed and in what circumstances? Have the personal circumstances of the applicant changed since they were cautioned, convicted or charged? What rehabilitation programmes has the applicant gone through? What else has the applicant done to avoid re-offending? Was the offence a one-off or is there a noticeable pattern of habitual offending? Would the individual pose any risk to the bureau insurance cover?
Phew. Once we’ve thought about all of that, it’s normally fairly clear whether or not we recruit that volunteer. It's perhaps about asking the right questions, weighing the risk on an individual basis and then trusting in that process. Eyes open/common sense combo! Without that, imagine the potential we could be missing out on...

5th Apr '12 at 15:13