"My goal to get 1,000 ex-offenders into employment in Sheffield," says Forging Ahead programme coordinator

Back in the 1990s, Stuart Otten’s life was on a very different path.

Tuesday, 5th January 2021, 9:16 am
Stuart Otten

After starting work as a teenage nightclub doorman, he quickly found himself embroiled in a sinister world of violence and drug dealing.

Following too many near-misses within the organised crime community in his home city of Liverpool, as well as within the criminal justice system, Stuart finally decided enough was enough.

“My mental health was rock bottom and I was having suicidal thoughts,” he recalls.

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Sheffield Forging Ahead

“One day I remember drawing a line in the sand; my life was so dark and empty, I had to start making better choices.”

Stuart set about studying to become a social worker – a goal he achieved – and spent the next few years becoming experienced in social care and mental health.

He also met a Sheffield woman and fell in love, moving to the city and getting involved with the City Hearts charity she worked for.

It was while working with City Hearts – which helps with people with life-controlling issues – and supporting three men who all had long histories of offending, that Stuart began to see a pattern.

“Two of the men I was working with stopped using drugs and one got a job after 10 years unemployment: a huge success which came to the attention of Metropolitan Police officer Pete Spratt,” says Stuart.

"I had sent some introductory emails out to senior police officers about what we were doing, and began discussing gaps in existing statutory approaches, with the Integrated Offender Management Team, to help people avoid reoffending.

“We looked at all the pathways that lead to offending – benefits, debt, housing, employment, and substance misuse.

"Detective Spratt and I started working with two difficult offender cases initially. With these new techniques, we broke down barriers and saw good results working with them.

“Neither has reoffended to this day - both have jobs, one has a mortgage.

"Spurred on by this success, we joined forces with a probation officer who had an idea to start an employability programme to help ex-offenders gain work - a key part of changing cycles of offending.

"We approached an education training provider who had good links with sympathetic employers and this proved to be the missing link.

"Within days, the Forging Ahead programme was born.”

Sheffield Forging Ahead launched two years ago this month, providing pathways to permanent employment for individuals seeking a life away from crime.

Stuart explains: “Forging Ahead combines the passions of individuals from within the criminal justice and charitable sectors.

"Together, our aim is to create opportunities of employment for individuals with a history of offending behaviour – our logo was even designed by a former offender who studied graphic design in prison!

"We designed the now award-winning integrated offender management programme in three weeks, based on passion, skillset and experience across the support network.

"Police, statutory services, drug and alcohol services were all involved. We have 32 employers signed up to consider ex-offenders now, including Amey, Gripple and Sainsburys - but we always need more enlightened employers to consider these individuals who have amazing skillsets but are often overlooked because of their offending history.

“I love the privilege of seeing people’s lives transformed on a daily basis,” adds Stuart.

“To see their relationship with the police change and for them to tell friends and relatives is great.

“Our experience is that of all the seven pathways into offending, employment is the biggest preventer.

“People often don’t realise 3.7 million people are classed as having any form of criminal record, many of whom will be jobless.

"Having a job is a reason to keep well, kick addictions, and manage a house.

“We are grateful to have received Surge Funding from South Yorkshire Police Violence Reduction Unit which has allowed us to grow into all four South Yorkshire regions and fund Forging Ahead for the next five years.

"The Forging Ahead programme has gone from being a fringe bolt-on to being central within the City Hearts organisation.”

Of course, 2020 brought unexpected challenges to the project, as it did for many other businesses, organisations, and charities.

“In late 2019, Brexit looked like creating a huge skills gap which we were confident our clients could fill - then the Covid pandemic appeared and many of those jobs were on the line,” says Stuart.

“Our clients are seriously marginalised, so some of our funding has been used to provide laptops and devices to allow Forging Ahead to change track and go online to deliver digitally and remotely.

Two years into the programme – and after an incredibly difficult 2020, Stuart is determined to get more employers on board, and drive home how much his clients want, and need, to work.

"Enlightened employers are making decisions based on who these people are, not what they have previously done,” says Stuart, who is now a married dad-of-one.

"My hope for the future is that people would be given opportunities based on merit, not their past.”

Stuart also reveals his current goal is to see 1,000 young men and women labelled as ‘ex-offenders’ get into employment and make a new start for themselves within the next five years through the City Hearts programme.

He adds: “People need to be dealt with as individuals.

"Don’t get me wrong I believe in justice, but once they have paid their price, we are there to support them and give them a chance to begin their journey of transformation into a brighter future.”