Natasha* was 16 when she was reported to the police while standing outside a fish and chip shop with a noisy group of friends.
She had never been in trouble before but there was a local ban on teenagers gathering in big groups. She was one of a handful who did not run away in time.
Natasha was given a police caution and told it was a slap on the wrist that would disappear from her record. “They said: ‘Sign this piece of paper, it’s just a caution and it’ll be gone,’” she said, recalling the incident.
With no legal advice she had no idea how wrong that would turn out to be.
Natasha always wanted to be a teacher and soon realized the offense came up on enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.
Mortified at having to explain, she spent her early 20s shying away from applying for jobs she would have loved – and was turned down for others.
Now 31, and managing a program that works with teenagers in schools, she is one of more than 11,000 people whose childhood criminal records in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man were disclosed last year, forcing her to defend what amounts to a teenage mishap.
“Nothing serious happened, we were just rowdy, loud 16-year-olds bored on the summer holidays,” she said. “But my DBS says ‘threatening and disturbing language and behavior to the public’. That doesn’t sound like wearing with your mates outside the chip shop. It sounds really bad.”
When she was 21, and already working as a dance instructor, a PE teacher post came up at a nearby school but she decided not to apply.
“I remember my mum saying: ‘Why don’t you go for it? You love kids, you love dance, you love sport,’ and I said: ‘No because they’re going to ask about this DBS and I’m going to be embarrassed.’ I was ready to go into the proper working world and didn’t go for it because I didn’t want them to ask about my wearing.”
Two years later she applied to work with teenagers in schools for a charity. She was turned down after an interview and had no idea why. When she got the job a year later, a friend who worked there as a manager told her it was because her DBS was not clean.
Natasha thinks the system needs urgent reform. “We’re looking at a lot of people that have just got petty things that happened years and years ago on their record. I think the government should try and find a way that they can let it go now.”
She says the system also exacerbates racial inequalities, with black people three times more likely to be arrested than white people.
While many of the 15 teenagers loitering outside the chip shop that day were white, the only four to be cautioned were all black or mixed race. “I think there was racial profiling,” Natasha said.
She believes that having to disclose a childhood offense also carries an extra sting because of her race. “I think it creates more of a stigma for me. Being a black woman going into schools, this caution from years ago is enforcing the idea that this black woman is from a troubled background, when actually I’m not.”
* Name has been changed