What is Safeguarding?
Does your organisation have a safeguarding policy? Have you read it recently? Who is responsible for safeguarding? Has anyone in your organisation reported a safeguarding issue to you? How do you know that your safeguarding policy and procedures are working? And how do you know that the people you work with and for are safe in your hands?
These are serious questions, but our experience at Verita is that some organisations are not asking themselves these questions often enough, and that lack of attention to safeguarding could adversely affect your organisation from a financial and a reputational point of view.
So, what is safeguarding, and why should we take it seriously? At its simplest, safeguarding is the action that is taken to promote the welfare of children or adults at risk and to protect them from harm.
Safeguarding failures are rarely far from the news. The #MeToo movement regularly surfaces examples of poor safeguarding practices. The child sexual abuse cases investigated in Rotherham and elsewhere prove that mistreatment and abuse of children and vulnerable adults is a disturbing part of the fabric of our society. The Independent Investigation into Child Sexual Abuse continues to gather a wide range of evidence about alleged abuse in the very highest echelons of our society.
Here at Verita we have just completed an investigation into how the Green Party of England and Wales reacted when it learned that one of its members had been convicted of serious sexual offences against a child. Our findings revealed a low level of awareness of safeguarding in the Party, despite the fact that it has explicit policies and procedures for dealing with safeguarding concerns.
Safeguarding in healthcare
Verita has a wealth of experience from other investigations in the healthcare sector, such as the Savile inquiries and the investigations into the conduct of other high-profile sex offenders who have exploited their positions of trust as medical professionals to abuse children or vulnerable adults.
What have we learned through our investigations? It is clear that many organisations have developed safeguarding policy and procedures in a pragmatic response to meeting their regulatory obligations. Organisations are also working hard to meet the various legal requirements to demonstrate that they are protecting people for whom they are responsible, whether they are employees, service users, customers, volunteers or the general public. Some of these people will be under your organisation’s direct control, but many will only have occasional contact with you and your staff.
Regulation is widespread and can be flexed quickly in response to serious incidents, but the law changes more slowly. Guidance from regulators makes it clear that safeguarding is an essential, and auditable feature of the landscape for many organisations. It is obviously important that leaders of organisations are aware of their legal and regulatory obligations, but that is not the whole story.
There is one important and overriding reason for an organisation that works with or for children or adults at risk to have robust safeguarding practices. It is not to do with anticipating and preventing regulatory, reputational or financial risk. It is to protect those vulnerable people from harm. So, in our view, it’s a moral and highly personal responsibility to prevent vulnerable people being harmed as they interact with your organisation, whether through your services, your facilities or through your people.
So who is responsible for safeguarding? It rests with each one of us. The board, the executive team and the HR people may be responsible for deciding strategy, setting policy and building procedures to deal with safeguarding concerns. But, in the end, even if the top people show the right leadership, and develop the best policies and procedures, it is still up to individuals to do the right thing. And that means reporting any issues that cause you to be concerned about the safety or security of a child or an adult at risk. If you have responsibility for taking action, this means that you must investigate concerns and inappropriate behaviours and you must take action where the concerns are founded.
Mercifully, cases of abuse of children and adults at risk are still relatively rare. It can be difficult for people at work to recognise the often-subtle signs that problems exist or may be developing. This elusiveness of evidence can be common to abusers and to their actual or intended victims and many abusers are highly adept at masking themselves to avoid detection. An organisation that takes safeguarding seriously will help its people to understand where and how abuse can happen and it will help its people anticipate and deal with abusive behaviours.
The risk of abuse can exist anywhere, but our experience is that the risks are higher where abusers are in positions of power over their victims. This may make them easier to trust and harder to challenge, especially if they are professionals with special status. Victims who are afraid to raise concerns for fear of embarrassment or exposure as a trouble-maker are more at risk. Victims of sexual abuse are often groomed over time by an abuser in a position of trust and responsibility. The risks are aggravated if the abuser is a “lone wolf”, or when they exploit physical space to separate their victim from view or from earshot.
Grooming often escalates to favouritism, coercion and physical force being used to abuse a victim. And a culture in which people are not supervised or managed properly, and in which inappropriate behaviours are not challenged, reported or dealt with will allow the abuser to flourish. Then, the first you hear about it will be when one of your patients is raped, or your child is abused by a doctor, or a colleague reports to you, or to the press, that she is being asked to trade sex for favours.
The determined abuser is almost impossible to stop. Cases of serious abuse committed by co-workers are often met with stunned incredulity and shock. Many abusers have a highly developed approach to concealing themselves, often in plain sight of their colleagues. They are secretive, calculating, deceptive and expert manipulators. But their patterns of behaviour can be detected, and staff can be educated and trained to recognise the danger signs. We have found that many organisations do not have systems, processes or expertise to recognise these “weak signals” of abusive behaviour. But staff can learn to spot the patterns that abusers develop, and organisations need to maintain constant vigilance against potential abusers, even if 100% success might never be achieved.
Safeguarding in the workplace
If you are responsible for safeguarding in your organisation, you need to take a multi-tiered approach. You will, of course, need a safeguarding policy and robust procedures that help people spot, report and deal with concerns. You will also need to incorporate explicit guidance into your code of conduct and your disciplinary procedures. You will need to maintain effective and thorough HR practices in your recruitment and appointments processes, and you will need to ensure that you identify those roles and people who require additional vetting checks before they work with children or adults at risk. You will need to establish safe systems of working that allow the jobs to be done, but that prevent the abuser from abusing. And, crucially, you will need to ensure that anyone who uses your services, or who interacts with your staff, is clear about what protection they will receive against abuse.
All these policies and procedures need to be written in clear and unambiguous language. It is never acceptable for people to conceal abuse, or to fail to report it either to the organisation or, in turn, to the police. It is never acceptable for an organisation to ignore concerns raised about the behaviour of suspected abusers. And it should never be an acceptable excuse for people to say “I was not aware of the policy. I did not know how to report my concerns”. Everyone in your organisation needs to know what to say and do if they are concerned about potential or real abuse. The policies and procedures need to be clear, and they need to be accessible.
Policies and procedures
All this is serious, and it can seem overwhelming, but there is practical help at hand. Verita has wide-ranging experience in investigating abuse cases in the workplace. We are working with a major NHS trust in London on a collaboration with the Metropolitan Police to develop education and training materials to help staff spot the signs of abusers, and the patterns of behaviour they adapt to avoid detection. We have the first-hand experience of the Jimmy Savile cases, and the learning from how they were handled. We have investigated other doctors and clinicians who have been convicted of serious sexual abuse of children and adults at risk in their care.
We are well-equipped to help you develop policy, procedures, governance and training to equip you, and your staff to address these difficult issues. If you need to start from scratch, or to benchmark what you do, or simply need quality assessment on your existing approach, we are here to help.
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