Published

By Jackie Sinclair

in Nacro comments

The key factors that can lead to a failure in safe and acceptable behaviour in the workplace.

You’ll probably remember the 2009 case of nursery worker Vanessa George (VG), who was handed an indeterminate sentence after pleading guilty to a string of child abuse offences committed against young children in her care.

A married mother with two children, she appeared to be a valued member within her local community and had taken up the post at Little Ted’s nursery some three years earlier. At some point in 2008, VG began an online relationship with Colin Blanchard (previously convicted of possessing indecent images of children). It was at this time that colleagues would later claim that they noticed a change in her behaviour. VG would send Colin Blanchard photos of her abusing children at the nursery and he would forward them to another lady with whom he had an online relationship, Angela Allen.

Key considerations:

  1. There was no evidence that VG had a sexual interest in children before her relationship with Colin Blanchard. It would have been virtually impossible for her employer to predict her future actions during the recruitment process.
  2. VG had no criminal record. A CRB certificate was on her personnel file, but showed no previous convictions, cautions or relevant allegations.

So if there was no way in which her employers could have foreseen VG’s offences, there’s nothing that the nursery could have done to prevent the abuse right?

Wrong. The inquiry that followed VG’s convictions demonstrated that there were a number of organisational failures which allowed VG’s abuse of children at the nursery to become possible.

#1 No clear lines of accountability

The inquiry found that there was confusion as to whether the nursery was a private organisation, or a registered charity, as well as confusion over the senior management staffing structure. There was no effective communication with parents; parents believed that the nursery manager was the owner (she wasn’t). Trustees seemed unaware of their responsibilities to the nursery and did not meet regularly. One of the registered trustees was deceased. This lack of clear structure made for a relaxed and informal environment.

#2 Lack of policies and procedures

Despite a number of (unrelated) child protection concerns which came to Ofsted’s attention in the years preceding VG’s crimes, the nursery had no clear child protection policies in place. Despite colleagues subsequently expressing concerns about VG’s increasingly sexualised behaviours, there were no whistle-blowing procedures in place and staff did not know how to raise concerns.

#3 Cutting corners in recruitment

The nursery manager was also a governor at the local primary school and knew VG as a parent from school. The inquiry found no evidence of any formal advertisement for the role, of an interview taking place, or of references being sought. The recruitment process was, at best, informal. The manager was not trained in safer recruitment methods that could have helped to identify professional boundary issues and vulnerability of staff. Certain staff members, including VG, were clearly vulnerable to manipulation, but this was neither identified nor managed.

#4 Nursery environment

The physical conditions of the nursery were described as unsuitable for young babies. Staff described the atmosphere as ‘depressing’ and ‘demoralising’. Although VG was generally considered to be a popular member of staff, she was also described as part of a clique. This could explain why staff felt unable to challenge her when her behaviour at work became increasingly unprofessional and inappropriate. That failure to challenge may have been viewed by VG as implicit support for her actions.

Wider context

You may recognise that many of the issues highlighted by the inquiry have been echoed again in more recent times, following investigations that have taken place under Operation Yewtree, for example.

The failure to implement a culture of safety, with the welfare and protection of children at its heart, and no clear procedures in place to either report concerns or to instil confidence that any concerns raised will be acted upon have been reported as contributing factors time and again.

What this demonstrates is that criminal record checks and declarations – while an important part of the recruitment process – do not solve the issue of safe recruitment. If your recruitment decisions focus too heavily on evidence of past criminal conduct as a determining risk factor, you could leave your organisation vulnerable to abuse from somebody with no prior convictions.

Nacro delivers interactive training sessions that look at practical ways in which organisations can manage criminal record and allegation information in the context of recruiting safely. To arrange safer recruitment training for your staff, please see here.

Look out for my blog next week on safer recruitment top tips.