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What is Durham’s Community Peer Mentor Scheme?

The community mentoring scheme has received the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service.

Funded by PCC Joy Allen, Durham’s Community Peer Mentor scheme works to support all those affected by crime who don’t currently have an active case – encompassing victims, perpetrators, as well as those displaying behaviour that may later lead to offending.

The support provide by the scheme is tailored to the individual but involves regular check-ins with mentors, signposting to other services, and at times accompanying individuals to appointments with other professionals.

Some of the people targeted by the scheme are multiple callers to the police who need a range of different services. 

A study of 150 of the scheme's clients showed it had saved the force more than 47,000 staff hours which would have been spent dealing with them.

Eight staff members are employed for the scheme and more than 100 volunteers – over 70 per cent of whom have lived experiences that their clients may be asking for help with including domestic abuse, homelessness, and previous offending. More than 20 volunteers have been clients of the service themselves.

Community Peer Mentor Manager, Jim Cunningham, told Police Oracle: “[Around eight years ago] we had a very good set-up up in Durham and Darlington around restorative justice.

“[However], even with restorative justice you needed a harmer, and you needed somebody to be harmed - so it was almost a bit too late.

“We did a massive data collection about what gets people to the restorative justice stage and what we found were people who were disenfranchised, people who were high impact users on police, who felt that their needs weren't being fulfilled by professionals. There were drugs, alcohol, and mental health all thrown into the mix.”

Following research with similar schemes with the NHS in Nottingham and a project in Blackpool, Mr Cunningham proposed an idea for the scheme with certain features in place. These included that those involved in the scheme do not wear a police badge or uniform, that the mentors would make contact on behalf of the referral agency with no repercussions for what was said unless it made fererence to a safeguarding issue, and that there is no time limit on support.

The recruitment of those with lived experience was one of the factors Mr Cunningham believed to be key as a way of ensuring understanding with those they work with as well as building trust.

Since 2016, the scheme has supported almost 3,000 people and provided over 184,000 days of support – while referrals increased by 260 per cent over the pandemic.

For clients referred to the programme by the police as high impact users on services, whether through calls, ASB, substance misuse – the scheme has reported a reduction of 75-81 per cent in calls.

Kellie McKeown is an area coordinator who manages the volunteers and oversees the clients. She deals with a lot of victims of hate crimes and has previously been a mental health nurse and a teacher within prisons.

Volunteer Hayley Gibson currently has six clients who she will ring once a week. While she mainly does telephone support, sometimes she will visit clients face-to-face.

“I think sometimes people are really lonely and isolated and they take every little thing that somebody does to the extreme,” she explained.

“Sometimes you can feel like someone’s a victim of something and then the story can completely turn around and you realise that they’re the ones causing some or a lot of the issue."

Kellie added: “I find a lot of the time with perpetrators, they’re actually the victim as well – but they didn’t necessarily come forward with that.”

The service isn’t on a statutory footing so there is no obligation to provide support which Jim Cunningham says is an important distinction of the scheme. 

“We've had great success in cases where we said, ‘You know what, I don't think you're ready for us at the moment,' he says. "We've done all this work for you. You're doing brilliantly, we're now walking away. You contact us when you're ready to bring something back’,.

“And nearly every single time within a couple of days, they were honest and said I'm really sorry, I want to change.

“The door is always open, they can always come back,” he added.  

The referral process is an informal one and there is no form to fill or set structure. The service works closely with the Victim Care and Advice Service and with the force, but referrals can come from a variety of services including GPs and the council.

Some people send over detailed paragraphs, others a crime number – the peer mentors will pick up the rest.

Moreover, the criteria is designed to be open, so it specifies for example “normally over 18” rather than “over 18”.

“VCAS might be working with a victim who doesn’t like being called as such, then they can refer them to us because we look at it a different angle,” Mr Cunningham added.

“Or there are cases where VCAS has finished working with that victim of crime but there remains issues around substances, mental health, antisocial behaviour, which had nothing to do with the crime.

“[We can then pick that up]. We would say that's enhanced support, but enhanced support for victims is normally for high end, nasty crimes - blackmails, rapes, murders. We can do that for any victim of crime that needs it.”

The scheme is funded by the OPCC and is set to be in place for at least as long as the current PCC Joy Allen remains in post.

The team has additionally worked with referrals from the Professional Standards Department – determining whether concerns have resulted from miscommunication or a lack of understanding or whether they need to be elevated through the complaints procedure.

Mr Cunningham described one case where a complainant had been through judicial review and was going to go the European Court regarding police treatment. While some elements of his complaint were upheld, others were able to be resolved using the Community Peer Mentor Scheme. As of last week the case, which had begun in 2019, was put to bed, with the individual happy with the outcome.

“Officers don’t always have the time to sit down and explain, they might use acronyms or at times even be blasé,” Mr Cunningham said.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re a victim, survivor or perpetrator, we will offer them support so long as they want to change.”

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