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When a warning for a playground fight turns into a life sentence

Little did she realise when she accepted a caution how much a playground fight would continue to impact on her life. Helen’s story highlights the reason why the Government’s current approach to the disclosure of old and minor criminal records needs to change.



Helen always wanted to be a nurse and was thrilled when she received an offer to study at one of the leading universities in the country.  It was going to be hard work but she wasn’t worried, she knew it would be worth it in the end.  That dream was shattered when the university revoked the offer. Was it because of her grades?  No.  She was rejected because she had a criminal record.  A danger to patients?  Surely not.  Like many teenagers, Helen had suffered at the hands of a school bully. One day, when she was just fifteen she retaliated and was embroiled in a fight with her tormentor in the school playground.  The police were called and she was taken to the police station. The police officer listened to her side of the story and seemed genuinely concerned.  He suggested that the best thing would be to accept a warning for assault occasioning actual bodily harm. That way she would be able to go home quickly, wouldn’t have the hassle of going to court and in any case, it would be wiped from her record when she turned 18. It seemed the best option at the time. That was fifteen year ago. She had never been in any kind of trouble before nor since.

Except trouble has followed her.  Because the police warning remains on her criminal record and was deemed reason enough to withdraw her offer of a university place.  After accepting her fate she decided a while later to appeal. It was the first of many times that she has had to relive that playground fight for a risk assessment panel or interviewer, each time as traumatic as the first because it takes her back to a really bad time in her life that people just won’t let her move on from.

The university made an exception for her; she worked really hard, finished the nursing course and started applying for jobs. Every time she had to disclose the criminal record on application forms and there were many times when she would hear nothing back, always wondering if the disclosure was the reason.  Eventually though she did receive a job offer. She had to write another disclosure statement which was read by many people – people that she would potentially have to work with.

Still, surely her troubles would be over now. Sadly this was not to be the case. As well as her main job, she wanted to apply to join the hospital’s ‘bank list’ which would have enabled her to do overtime shifts. After yet another discussion about the warning, her manager refused to sign off her application form stating that she ‘didn’t think she was ready for this’. Several of her co-workers (who had considerably less experience)  had been accepted quickly.

Helen is one of the lucky ones.  Many with these childhood criminal records never even get the chance to work in the career of their choice.  Yet Helen, whose record consists of a single warning, has a life sentence of sorts.

“Over time, I’ve noticed how differently I’ve been treated from my co-workers and how my manager rarely makes eye contact with me. Recently I applied for a job with another nursing agency and as soon as the agency had reviewed my references and my DBS certificate, the job offer was rescinded. I’m now at the point where I feel employers and agencies only offer me interviews to stop them being accused of discrimination. I’ve really struggled to move on with my life because something I did as a child is always hanging over my head. It’s been over 12 years since that stupid fight in the playground but, because my offence is a violent one, it will never be filtered from DBS certificates and will stay with me for life.”

Helen’s story is not uncommon. That is why Unlock has intervened in a Supreme Court case which challenges the Government’s approach to disclosing old and minor criminal records on DBS checks. If we win, the Government will have to change the system. We’re raising money to support our campaign. Donate now here.

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