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Help Sheet

Screening volunteers

People are offering their precious time to help your organisation. You feel embarrassed about asking them questions, or checking up on them. What if they think you are rude and you lose their support?

First it must be made clear that screening is a risk management exercise. All good risk management strategies must deal with the possibility of the very rare and the very unlikely occurring.

For community groups, the chance of volunteers causing serious problems is extremely rare. And the vast majority of prospective volunteers have no possible objections on checks to see if they have a police record.

When things do go wrong, however, they can go spectacularly wrong, and if you're dealing with a very small chance of a very large damage it's sensible to take reasonable precautions. You want to have procedures in place that as far as possible cover your group and its members from avoidable risks without discouraging recruitment.

Why do we need to screen?

You need to think about screening because:

How much screening do we need to do?

This depends on the possible risk to others. Areas of possible concern are:

Dealing with money

If a volunteer is handling money, you will want to know that they will leave it as they found it and will not divert it sideways. Some money handling is relatively small scale and low risk (for example, shaking the tin), whereas banking cheques is larger scale and therefore higher risk.

Calculate the level of risk for your organisation and ensure that you put in place risk minimisation strategies such as a well-documented and appropriately supervised set of financial procedures for everybody.

Sensitive information and intellectual property

If the volunteer is going to be able to access confidential personal data or your group's intellectual property, you'll need to be confident that they will observe the organisation's privacy and confidentiality policies. It is worthwhile having all people working in your organisation, both paid staff and volunteers, sign a confidentiality agreement.

Positions of trust

If a volunteer is placed in a position of trust by the organisation - a position where he or she is placed in a position of authority (formal or informal) over another person in an ongoing relationship - then this presents the (remote) possibility of abuse. A position of trust implies that the volunteer has some degree of power over your community and that the relationship is unequal.

Ensure that all members of your organisation understand your equal opportunity and harassment policies.

Vulnerable people

If the volunteer is dealing with vulnerable people, he or she will need to satisfy stricter standards.

People who have difficulty protecting themselves are at greater risk of harm than the general population. Your members may be vulnerable because of their age, because they have a disability, or because of their circumstances. Vulnerability may be a temporary or a permanent condition.

This definition is fairly broad, including (among other groups) children, youth, older people, people with physical, developmental, social, emotional, or other disabilities, and people who have been victims of trauma, crime or torture.

What kind of screening do we need?

Community groups need to fit their volunteer screening procedures into all aspects of their formal recruitment and management processes.

Step 1. The position description

For each position, undertake a risk assessment and determine the level of protection you need. Include a description of the risk and the level of screening required into the position description.

Step 2. Advertisement

When you're calling for volunteers, be sure to say that you do have a screening process. You do not want people getting upset in the office.

Step 3. Application form

As well as asking for contact information and (relevant) personal details, the form should ask about any special information you have decided you need for that position (e.g. medical clearance, driver's licence, criminal record) and ask the applicant's permission to check them. Remember, all this information must be held strictly confidential.

Ask for referees.

Step 4. Interview

The interview has to cover much more than just security concerns, of course, and has to explore the whole range of issues about how well the needs of the prospective volunteer match the needs of the organisation, but along the way you will also want to explore any doubts you may have about their suitability. After the interview, do follow up their referees and check their references.

Step 5. Police Records Check

Obviously, this isn't going to be needed in all cases, or even in most. However, if you have volunteers working in positions of trust with vulnerable people in circumstances where any abuse of their position is possible then, for the reasons given above, you must consider this option. In some cases, it will be legally required.

Remember, just because a police check brings up something does not mean that you are obliged to turn away the volunteer. The offence may be something that happened when he or she was young and foolish, something like non-payment of parking fines that isn't particularly applicable to the job at hand, or something that for whatever reason you regard as not relevant.

The responsible authority in Victoria is the Police Criminal Records Section Public Inquiry Service.

Step 6. After screening service

If the screening process - form, interview, check - has thrown up information that has made you think again and reject the volunteer, you will need to tell the person in writing why their application was rejected and you will need to give them a chance to argue their case. Even if screening has indicated that applicants are in the clear, your organisation will still need a full range of protective policies and practices. Remember, even full police checks

Step 7. Work design

It is possible to design work procedures and workplace layout to minimise the opportunity for abuse to take place, although this is of course only one of the considerations that you must take into account. You do not wish to make these fears the centre of your organisation's work.

Step 8. Training

You should use the training period to observe the person working in the new situation of the workplace. Inform them of the policies and procedures to do with your community protection. This should include those that engender a culture of respect for the people who belong to or work for the group and their rights. If any concerns arise, discuss these with the volunteer.

Step 9. Supervision and evaluation

The amount of supervision that is provided will depend on, among other things, the level of risk that has been identified with the position. If there's a comparatively high risk, there needs to be a greater amount of supervision. This, of course, should be integrated, with the supervision necessary to give the person the best possible chance of achieving a successful job outcome. Supervision can involve spot audits, checking reports, and monitoring outcomes. Volunteers should be aware that their work is under review. As with any supervision, feedback to the volunteer and regular evaluation are important. If any concerns arise, discuss these with the volunteer.

Reporting

Reporting procedures have two facets: encouraging your group's paid and unpaid workers to report incidents to you, and your responsibility to report incidents to the authorities.

Your procedures should include a recognised way for people to make complaints - about the organisation or about its staff, directly or anonymously.

If any concerns arise, discuss these with the volunteer. If there is a credible case, you will need to have a policy in place to ensure a fair but effective investigation, and a procedure for dispute resolution. These are serious matters, and whatever the rights and wrongs they have the potential to be enormously disruptive if not handled properly.

Mandatory reporting

Depending on the nature of your organisation and the applicable state law, you may or may not be subject to mandatory reporting of abuse. Check this out. If you are covered, inform staff and volunteers and draw up a reporting protocol that will record each step of the process.

This area is fraught with difficult ethical questions, and it is advisable to think these through well in advance.

Mandatory reporting information can be found at: http://www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/sheets/rs3/rs3.html.

 

 

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