One of the things I’ve learnt about being the father of disabled sons is that conversations with practitioners aren’t always exactly about what you think they are about. You might be talking about the details of a care plan or something that you’ve done; but certain things or actions on my part might trigger a micro-assessment in the mind of the practitioner I was talking to. Is what I was doing age appropriate? Was I being overly tactile with by deaf-blind step-son? Is something that my son said an indication of his idiosyncratic use of language, or does it indicate something more sinister. Safeguarding the well-being of vulnerable people is a core part of all practitioner’s responsibilities not just social workers and it is their responsibility to put the interests of the people I love ahead of mine. So, I’ve always been happy to accept timely suggestions about how I might be able to do things a little differently. But that kind of informal preventative safeguarding requires time and trust and is becoming increasingly rare and now safeguarding is almost invariably about the responsibility that practitioners have to identify harm being done to vulnerable people after it has happened. But safeguarding isn’t just a responsibility, it is also a power and as with all powers its use is fraught with danger.
I was reminded of this when I read one of Mark Neary’s tweets recently:
“Whenever I mention our encounter with Community DoLS, I can guarantee that I’ll get at least 1 reply that feels I need reminding that disabled people need safeguarding from their families too”
It’s a tweet that is rich in meaning. There is resignation; an acknowledgement of the self-evident truth that sometimes disabled people need to be protected from their families; and there is the more sinister undertone that Mark with all of his experience of the system needs to be aware that what happened to him was done with the best of intentions, because after all “disabled people need safeguarding from their families too”. Unfortunately for Mark and for all of us the stats on the abuse of vulnerable people don’t do us any favours.
According to “Abuse of Vulnerable Adults in England – 2012-13, Final report, Experimental statistics” which amongst other things found:
Physical abuse and neglect were the most common types of abuse reported in referrals, accounting for 28 per cent and 27 per cent respectively of all allegations. Alleged abuse was more likely to occur in the vulnerable adults own home (39 per cent of all locations) or a care home (36 per cent).
The source of harm was most commonly reported as a social care worker (32 per cent of all perpetrators) or a family member (a combination of the Partner and Other Family Member categories, 23 per cent).
In these statistics, scepticism about and the judgement of families is legitimised, and with that legitimation comes the power to make families the problem and the threat. It means that As Rob Mitchell put it today in the same twitter thread:
The state creates an industry of fear & violence. It’s enshrined in legislation. It convinces people that financial scams, coercion, bullying, risk & abuse happens at every turn. It then sells people state intervention as insurance against the fear.
But are we the problem and is increased surveillance and state intervention in our lives always the solution? Unfortunately, sometimes we might well be the problem, and at times intervention must happen, but think about it for a moment. Why are vulnerable people harmed, why do they need to be protected? Well there is always malice and the desire to do harm to other people. But not all abuse happens because of a desire to do harm, sometimes it happens out of ignorance or out of not knowing how to deal with certain kinds of situation.
There is a presumption in the data in the report I quoted, that the physical abuse carried out by a social care worker is the same as the physical abuse carried out by a family member. The report tells us that social care workers are responsible for more harm than any other group. Yet social care workers are trained, they receive supervision, are paid and can go home after their shift. From other sources and scandals we know that settings that are poorly run with untrained and unsupervised staff are more likely to have an abusive culture than organisations that are well supervised with well trained staff.
Whereas families get very little guidance, support, or training, they don’t get paid and are often in it for the very long haul. But what might cause a family member to harm a relative? As with social care workers there is always malice. But what we do know is that families are unlikely to have had any training or support. So, a husband or daughter, caring for an elderly relative with dementia who keeps wanting to leave the house during the night, is unlikely to have been taught how to keep them safe without using inappropriate forms of restraint or confrontation. The consequence can be harm and bruising. This would not have been an act of malice and with effective support and guidance that abuse by the family member might have been prevented.
In my experience the harm that families do to their loved ones often arises out of not knowing how to deal with difficult situations, or because they simply do not understand a person’s rights as adults. So, for me the question that comes out of the data in the report, and the undertones of the safeguarding advocate commenting on Mark and Stephen’s story is how often might the harm caused by a family member be prevented if they were properly supported and given training in safer ways of managing difficult and distressing situations? Or to put it another way if there was more support for families and less surveillance.
Unfortunately the sad truth is that as local authorities budgets come under increasing pressure and their safeguarding functions become the thing that gets cut last; then the ability to put in the kind of support that can and would prevent some forms of abuse is either cut or was probably never put in place in the first place. What is left as Rob Mitchell put it, is the state’s “industry of fear and violence” because everything else is gone.