Youth work abuser hired despite previous assault conviction

Internal inquiry found man ‘should not have been employed’ by charity Extern

Extern  works with at-risk children, provides addiction and homelessness services, and runs Garda youth diversion projects.  Photograph: Alan Betson

Extern works with at-risk children, provides addiction and homelessness services, and runs Garda youth diversion projects. Photograph: Alan Betson

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A man who sexually abused a vulnerable juvenile in youth work charity Extern two years ago was hired despite a previous conviction for aggravated assault, which was incorrectly recorded by the organisation.

An internal investigation, seen by The Irish Times, found the individual “should not have been employed” by the charity, and recruitment policies were not properly followed, or “ignored”.

Extern is an all-island charity that works with at-risk children, as well as providing addiction and homelessness services, and runs Garda youth diversion projects.

The former employee was convicted earlier this year over the sexual abuse of a young teenager in Extern’s services in Northern Ireland in the second half of 2019.

The perpetrator had a previous conviction for aggravated assault, which was picked up during the vetting process, the internal investigation said. Despite this, as well as not having the required experience for the role, the man was hired by the charity.

The investigation, conducted by Extern’s audit manager and completed in the months after the teenager disclosed the sexual abuse, found the details of his past conviction were “not recorded accurately” by the charity, and the “description of the offence was changed”.

The vetting disclosure stated the man’s previous conviction was for “aggravated assault on a female or boy under 14 years of age”, the report said.

However, staff omitted the word “aggravated”, and incorrectly recorded the conviction as “assault on a woman or minor under 14” during his recruitment.

It is understood the conviction related to an aggravated assault on an adult a number of years ago.

“It is clear that information in regards to the declared conviction was altered. There were words left out and changed,” the report said.

A manager interviewed for the report said they could not explain why the details were changed in Extern’s files, and was “shocked” the word aggravated had been omitted.

The man did not meet other essential criteria, such as having the required previous experience, and it was “apparent” he should never have been hired, the report said.

“Recruitment and selection of this employee shows that none of the controls in place were properly adhered to, or else they were ignored,” it said.

While working with Extern the man was also being investigated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) over separate historic sexual abuse allegations, reported to police in early 2019.

A spokeswoman for the PSNI said these allegations were not disclosed to Extern as the former employees’ vetting checks took place before the allegations were reported to police. The man pleaded guilty to charges related to the historic abuse earlier this year.

Last year Extern received more than €20 million in funding from public bodies, and supported about 20,000 vulnerable people.

The charity’s internal investigation found serious shortcomings in the Extern service where the perpetrator was based.

Failures to follow proper procedures for dealing with serious incidents were “systemic,” with local management “actively complicit in non-compliance,” it said.

The failure to follow guidelines around serious incidents had placed “service users and our organisation at risk,” the report said.

There were “clear examples” of serious incidents and safeguarding concerns that were not reported through the charity’s appropriate internal channels.

After the Extern service user disclosed the abuse, a manager was to inform the accused in person and place him under suspension. The report noted the plan “was not executed as agreed.”

Instead the perpetrator was told of the allegation over the phone, and then picked up by a taxi and driven home. He then went missing and was only located two days later, shortly after which he was interviewed and charged by the PSNI.

In a statement, Extern said it has “never and will never appoint anyone who is barred from working with children or vulnerable adults, and has never employed anyone who has a conviction for child abuse.”

The charity said it secured police and Garda checks “on all staff before they commence employment.”

“Following the safeguarding incident an immediate initial internal investigation revealed a localised non-application of the organisation’s HR policies and practices. Further external HR audits were carried out across the organisation and confirmed that this was not systemic and reaffirmed the non-compliance in procedures were confined to a local area,” the statement said.

Extern said child abuse was “abhorrent” and the safety of thousands of children and families it worked with was its “highest priority.”

“We have left no stone unturned through the investigations that followed this incident, and extensive work in reviewing our selection and recruitment procedures, and thorough review of our safeguarding practices,” it said.

Extern failed to notify Tusla, the State child and family agency, of the abuse case for more than a year, despite the man working with children from the Republic. While authorities in the North were informed at the time, Tusla was not notified until September 2020.

In response Tusla stopped referring children to Extern’s services for a number of months last year, while the Department of Justice also temporarily suspended funding to the organisation.

An initial review by governance expert Jillian van Turnhout, completed last November, concluded Extern’s approach to the incident “was one of containment rather than safeguarding and transparency”.

A full review by safeguarding consultant Marcella Leonard has been completed in recent weeks, and is currently being considered by Extern’s boards.

Who are youth work charity Extern?

Extern describes itself as a “leading social justice charity,” that supports 20,000 people a year. It operates on an all-island basis and mainly works with vulnerable young people.

In the Republic it works with children in the care system, those with challenging behaviour, and runs Garda youth diversion programmes, for young people involved in antisocial or criminal behaviour.

It also provides services for people dealing with addiction, mental health or family breakdown issues, housing and homelessness, and works with refugees and minority communities.

Extern received around €20 million in public funding last year, some €7 million from Tusla, the State child and family agency, who refer children to Extern for support services.

Other large funders include the Health Service Executive, Department of Children, Limerick City and County Council, and Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency and several healthcare trusts.