Safeguarding is the action that is taken to promote the welfare of children, vulnerable adults or adults at risk and to protect them from harm.
Firstly, who might be a vulnerable adult? This is not as simple as the elderly, or someone with perhaps mental health issues. Vulnerable adult can apply to someone whose life has been adversely affected by illness, bereavement and other life changing events – or a combination of these. Their ‘world’ has been rocked, and they are susceptible to being preyed upon, coerced, or groomed. Those who might prey upon the vulnerable can seem innocuous – a relative or old friend who comes to stay for example – and on the surface may appear to have the best intentions – but the person at the centre’s behaviour may change as they are manipulated. Vulnerable adult can also apply to young adults who are needy and want to impress. Vulnerable adults are all around us, and they need their friends, and their community to make certain they are safe.
Safeguarding is now prevalent in all walks of life as the victims of abuse and cover-ups have had the courage to come forward. Safeguarding is the about the ability to deal with the issue properly, and sensitively, and ensure it is reported.
Is it necessary here? Fact - there are more sex offenders living in rural areas then urban. Why? Because those on the sex offenders register cannot live within a certain distance of a school, or place where youth clubs may meet etc. and so living in a non-urban setting meets that stipulation. It has been known for sex offenders to ‘go underground’, change their name, live in a community for up to 20 year whilst becoming an accepted member of the society – and then become active.
The last 2 years has been a significant period in the world of safeguarding. The independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has been finding its feet (at long last) and holding its first public hearings. Football has been embroiled in over 2,0000 allegations of non-recent child abuse by coaches and scouts, impacting 334 clubs. Oxfam has been confronted by its past in Haiti and Chad – and this turned out to be the tip of the iceberg, not only within Oxfam but within the overseas aid sector as a whole. Meanwhile allegations spill over from Hollywood to the West End, from Westminster to the legal profession. The Church of England has conducted its own, arguably badly flawed, report on historical issues, and more cases are to be revealed over the coming year. The Catholic Church is facing up to its own historical abuses. In many cases the organisations concerned seemingly failed to prevent abuse, or at worst have been accused of turning a blind eye – or even covering up. No-one is ‘too respectable’ to be an abuser.
The regulatory response has been swift. The FA moved quickly. The Charity Commission issued new safeguarding guidance for charities with a strongly worded alert for the sector, making clear that safeguarding is not just for the beneficiaries, but also staff, volunteers and any others who come into contact with a charity through its activities. They make clear that safeguarding is a key priority from which they will not shirk in taking regulatory action, including initiating statutory inquiries where it has concerns. Two such inquiries have commenced this year into household-name UK charities. Meanwhile funders, sponsors and donors have taken a much closer look at organisations’ safeguarding policies and in some cases withdrawing funding or pledges. However, the Charity Commissioners apply this to all registered charities – whatever their size.
There is only one reason for an organisation which works with or for children, or adults at risk, to have a robust safeguarding practice. And no, it is not regulatory, reputational or financial risk. It is to protect those who may be at risk from harm – both harm which may be caused through their contact with the organisation, and harm to which they may be exposed in other areas of their lives but which the organisation may learn of through contact with them. – and on this last point is why every church must appoint a trained Safeguarding Officer. It is true that an organisation which fails to put these safeguards in place runs a high risk of regulatory penalty, reputational damage, financial loss and in extremis, commercial viability – but it should not be the reason for applying Safeguarding. We do Safeguarding because it is the right thing to do.
The risk of abuse can exist anywhere, but research indicates the risk is heightened where:
- Individuals are placed in positions of power relative to the victim and may be hard to challenge.
- those individuals are able to abuse that power for gratification by grooming or coercing a victim to engage in a form of sexual activity.
- the possibility of favour exists for co-operation and vice-versa.
- there is a fear of embarrassment or retribution for raising the alarm.
- there is a culture in which rules can be broken and rule-breakers (especially more senior ones) are not held to account.
Defeatism should not be accepted around safeguarding. Nor should denial. Nor should complacency (“it wouldn’t happen here”). It may be an impossible outcome to achieve, but no one designs an airplane with the aspiration of making it 95% safe. And the answer is not as one dimensional as introducing or refreshing a whistle blowing policy. Any safeguarding system should involve numerous layers – from a code of conduct which establishes clear boundaries, to an open culture where anyone feels able to express concerns. There are some absolute no-nos. Theses range from failure to report crimes to the police or refer threshold concerns about an adult working with children or adults at risk to children or adult services, to the use of ‘settlement agreements’ with confidentiality clauses or agreed references.
Safeguarding is not nanny-stateism. Yes the phrase Risk Assessment does come into the layers of Safeguarding, but in most cases it is simply documenting common sense. Protecting those in our community, those we care for, from events that can happen – and in a rural setting one can be alone or isolated at times. In any emergency 999 and 112 will work even if there is no mobile phone signal.