A leading Yorkshire LGBT charity working with child abuse victims and vulnerable young adults has been criticised for allowing staff to embark on sexual relationships with clients.
Charities and experts in victims’ welfare said they were astonished at the wording of guidance on how staff at Yorkshire MESMAC can conduct themselves with the people who use their service across the county.
The charity offers a range of services including sexual health information, free HIV testing and counselling for LGBT young people and adults. One of its services, the Blast project, works with young men and boys who have faced sexual exploitation.
The charitiy “workers’ conduct policy” says: “Sexual relationships are acceptable with service users initially met during work time, but this would be inappropriate if the service user has entered into a 1-2-1 or ongoing support relationship with the worker.”
The rules do not relate to the charity’s work with children. After the Guardian approached Yorkshire MESMAC it said that it would be redrafting the policy.
The chief executive of the Survivors Trust, a national agency providing support for victims of rape and sexual violence, Fay Maxted, said: “I am astonished at how it [the policy] has been written and the advice it contains about personal sexual relationships with service users. The nearest example I can think of this that would be appropriate or acceptable is around relationships with ex-service users and even then with caution.
“The policy doesn’t sufficiently protect service users from workers who may exploit their position to gain access to vulnerable people. In fact, it’s a charter for workers to seek out service users they want to have a relationship with.”
The policy also states: “It is not acceptable for workers to use work time to further relationships they may wish to pursue in their own time, for example by exchanging telephone numbers or other personal contact information.”
Dr Alec Grant, who retired earlier this year as reader in narrative mental health at the University of Brighton, said: “The policy provides workers with contradictory guidelines: on the one hand they are told that it is not acceptable to turn work relationships into personal ones. They are then informed that they can pursue sexual relationships with service users met during work time, providing they are not in either a one-to-one or a supportive relationship.”
He added: “Sex between workers and service users would be a sackable offence in other third-sector charity organisations.”
All charities have a policy in place around sexual relationships between their staff and clients, often clearly restricting or banning it. Most experts in the sector argue that such relationships blur private and professional roles and may make maintaining confidentiality difficult.
The charity is now rewriting its policy, which it argued had been misconstrued. Its chief executive, Tom Doyle, said: “For clarity, the scenario that it attempts to address is, for example, in our adult sexual health services, where a worker is giving out condoms in pubs, clubs, etc. Technically at that point everyone they give a condom to is a service user. If they then meet that person in another setting, say at a party, and both are attracted to each other, then we think it is acceptable for them to develop a relationship. What is unacceptable is to use work time or their position in MESMAC to further that in any way.”
He added: “We accept that read out of context this could be misconstrued. All staff undergoes an extensive induction programme, including a full walkthrough of our priority policies, which includes safeguarding. Staff at Yorkshire MESMAC is in no doubt about safeguarding.”