This is the story of ‘Ann’ – a woman who grew up in the care system, groomed and exploited, still marked by permanent records for the sexual crime of prostitution.
Ann* is now 43 and a project worker living in Middlesbrough and she knows she is lucky to be where she is now, compared to her peers she knew growing up in the care system.
Ann entered the care system at the age of 12 years. Four years later, angry and wanting to lash out at anyone in authority, she met a man who was more than ten years older than her, and they started a relationship.
‘Looking back I now know I was groomed,’ says Ann. Within a short space of time, her boyfriend became her pimp and she was out working on the streets.
‘At that time, back in the early 1990s, there were so many men acting as pimps and girls were working all across the town. I received my first conditional discharge for soliciting aged 17 and was fined £45.
‘Seeing what happened to all those girls in Rotherham, I realise I was also badly let down. By social services and the police. I was dismissed as an angry young girl. When I was arrested for soliciting aged 17, a social worker came to the police station to sign me out. I went straight back out on the streets. Any attempts that I made to leave my boyfriend were pointless. He would say that if I left him, he would turn up at the school where my young nieces and nephews were and he’d hurt them.’
Ann was trapped in this nightmare cycle for more than five years. Many convictions were for breaching her bail conditions. Her boyfriend would not let her meet those bail conditions. She was also prosecuted for possession of an offensive weapon. ‘I needed a knife on the streets as I knew he had one and he had threatened me with it more than once,’ says Ann. ‘I had to carry it long after our relationship was over, because I had so little support from the police as I had dropped charges against him so many times.’
Recently, Ann requested all information held about her from the police force. Her last arrest sheet reveals the arresting officer described her as ‘fat, with very long ginger, dyed red hair.’
‘Fat!’ says Ann. ‘He could have least said ‘carrying a few extra pounds’ or ‘chunky’ but no. ‘Fat!’
Such is the resilience and humour of a woman who battled to leave a world of violence, threats and fear. A 28 day prison sentence, she served 14 days, for a motoring offence, was the turning point for Ann and she vowed to move on and away from the violence and threats.
She gained four A levels, did two years of a degree course before having to quit due to financial pressures and has a string of other qualifications to her name.
But has she been able to leave her past behind, more than 20 years after convictions for prostitution?
No. And not through trying.
Convictions for soliciting are classed as sexual offences and thus will always remain subject to a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check regardless of the time passed. They cannot be filtered out. The Gov.uk website says: ‘A list of offences which will never be filtered from a criminal check has been taken from legislation. The list includes a range of offences which are serious, relate to sexual or violent offending or are relevant in the context of safeguarding.’
Yet, under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, in the case of over 18s, a custodial sentence of over 30 months but not exceeding 48 months, is spent after seven years from the date on which the sentence (including any licence period) is completed.
So, while most of Ann’s convictions led to relatively minor penalties such as fines, the consequences have been far reaching and disproportionately detrimental on her ability to pursue a career in the care industry. Ironically, the only offence which saw Ann receive a custodial sentence could be filtered out.
Women who were coerced into prostitution below the age of 18 are still being forced to reveal past convictions when subject to a DBS check, which is routinely used when applying for employment or a voluntary position across a host of sectors working with children or vulnerable adults.
Women who have exited prostitution are still being criminalised at the same time as the men who bought them for sex are free from convictions and able to pursue their lives with impunity.
The tenacity and bravery of women like Fiona Broadfoot, who waived her right to anonymity, led to a successful legal challenge in March of this year to prevent their criminal records being revealed to potential employers. The two senior judges, Mr Justice Holroyde and Mrs Justice Nicola Davies, ruled that it was illegal to force women to reveal past convictions.
To date, this has yet to be implemented and convictions for soliciting cannot be filtered out of DBS checks.
Correspondence from the Police and Crime Commissioner regarding Ann’s situation said: “At present prostitution isn’t one of the filtered offences so would not be removed. The list of offences may be reviewed later in the year. If this offence is added then she may be able to reapply and that particular conviction would not appear, but as things stand at the moment it would remain.”
‘The police recognise they didn’t support me back when I needed it,’ says Ann. ‘They contacted me recently, 20 years later, as they were going through historic cases, to ask if I wanted to press charges against my former boyfriend. It’s too late now.
‘People are still very judgemental,’ says Ann. ‘I go for jobs and I know my past is going to come up because of DBS checks. It is soul destroying. I am not the person I was when I was 17. I don’t like to say I am a victim. But I was and I should not still be penalised for that. I was let down and I am still being let down.
‘I cannot do jobs I know I would be good at or reach my full potential because of my convictions. All my hard work and qualifications count for nothing. I just hope the law changes come in sooner rather than later so I can be allowed to move on. Finally.’
*Ann’s name has been changed.
Emma Chesworth is a senior caseworker in Middlesborough, a qualified journalist, and a regular contributor on regional television, radio and the press on women’s issues.