A friend and colleague of mine – a Fellow and College Chaplain – has just been completing the latest safeguarding training for the Church of England. At one point she and a colleague who is a Licensed Lay Minister (who also happens to be a GP) were asked to give their definition of an ‘adult at risk’ in the context of safeguarding. They obliged. The trainer paused, and then pointed out that their definition was not the same as the Church of England’s. which uses a much broader concept of a ‘vulnerable adult’. So, what is the difference and is that difference significant?
An adult is someone over 18, at least in the UK; it means ‘grown-up’, ‘mature’ and ‘ripened’. Our English word ‘vulnerable’ comes from and older Latin word to men ‘wound’, ‘hurt’ or ‘injured’. Our word ‘risk’ Italian roots, meaning ‘to run into danger’ of any kind, be it at the cliff-edge, or with one’s health.
Understanding safeguarding and following good practice is vitally important. For those working in chaplaincy roles with students just emerging into adulthood. Issues around safeguarding, vulnerability, responding to sexual assaults and harassment always been high up our agenda, as our institutions seek to find the right balance between creating safe environments, whilst ensuring that individuals have agency over their own lives.
In terms of safeguarding, policies, higher education, and any chaplaincy and welfare that serves within this context, has learnt to separate out policies which cover children (i.e., those under 18) and those who are adults at risk. Having one single policy would unwittingly imply that adults in need of safeguarding are child-like, and not real adults. Which is why policies on harassment and clear codes of conduct are there to acknowledge that adults can encounter bad behaviour which can range from upsetting to seriously abusive. Power differentials can play a significant part in abusive behaviour, yet it is not straightforward to suggest that such differentials automatically make any case a matter for safeguarding.
We are a lot clearer when talking about children. A child featuring in safeguarding policies is someone who is under 18 years old. However, even this presents issues. Young people from 16-18 years old cannot legally drink alcohol. But they can legally have sex with other students, some of whom may be older than them. Questions of sexual consent are therefore important for all of the students to navigate. As under 18’s, they are covered by safeguarding policies, and universities and colleges will note in advance who they are. So, a child safeguarding policy has a clear definition of who is covered.
Who, though, is intended to be covered in the ‘adult at risk’ policy? This needs a careful definition so that higher education institutions are clearer when they have statutory duties to act. In my own institution, we use the definition from the Department of Health. Thus, adults at risk are: “those who are or may be in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness; and who is or may be unable to protect him or herself against significant harm or exploitation.”
A proportion of students may have mental or other disabilities but the nature of the institution means that very few of them need community care and would come under this definition of an adult at risk. This definition follows the 2014 Care Act (see: www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/23/contents/enacted). Significantly, this Act prompted a shift from the previous terminology of ‘vulnerable adults’. The 2014 Act recognised that legislation about adult safeguarding had developed with variable definitions, and had often been seen as an extension of the safeguarding for children. The Commission for Social Care called it ‘neither systematic nor coordinated, reflecting the sporadic development of safeguarding policy over the last 25 years (Commission for Social Care Inspection, 2008, para. 2.1).’ The legislation in the 2014 Care Act is clearly designed to protect those who are required to have care and support needs met, but which could place them in a situation where they can be abused or neglected by the person or people providing such care. Importantly these policies are aimed at adults – and thus, as far as possible, the capacity (or agency) of the adult to make choices themselves must be respected.
So how does the Church of England’s definition of adult safeguarding differ and what is the significance? The Church of England has retained the terminology of vulnerable adults. Thus, The Parish Handbook on Safeguarding defines a ‘vulnerable adult’ in Appendix A as follows:
‘The term ‘vulnerable adult’ refers to a person aged 18 or over whose ability to protect himself or herself from violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation is significantly impaired through physical or mental disability, illness, old age, emotional fragility, distress, or otherwise; and for that purpose, the reference to being impaired is to being temporarily or indefinitely impaired’.
The model safeguarding policy offered gives no definition and is meant to cover children, young people and vulnerable adults on one policy. The definition of ‘vulnerable adult’ cited above by actually comes from the Church of England’s 2016 Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukcm/2016/1/contents). Under this definition, there are a number of terms that are open to interpretation. What does it mean for someone to be ‘temporarily significantly impaired due to emotional fragility or distress’? What does ‘otherwise’ mean in this context? In this definition, who decides who is a vulnerable adult?
At first sight we may conclude that a much broader definition of a vulnerable adult is a good thing. offering a wider concept of care and acknowledging that there are lots of situations in which people are vulnerable. This could be true in certain church contexts, where clergy meet with individuals in their homes and ministers and other church workers hold positions of trust. However, why organisations have chosen the more nuanced definition of an ‘adult at risk’ in terms of safeguarding suggests that the Church might want to re-think its terminology.
Here, it is important to note the work done on robust harassment and bullying policies in other organisations, and which deal with cases where adults are abused or harassed, often in situations of unequal power and betrayal of trust. The church has far less robust policies and procedures for this. The church is currently pushing matters that should come under harassment into safeguarding. When the #metoo movement caused some women to report incidences of sexual harassment, including assault in church settings too, many were directed to the safeguarding officers – with no sense that this might be inappropriate. Were these women now being defined as vulnerable adults who could not protect themselves? It seemed to be coming perilously close to ‘victim blaming’. There seemed to be no understanding of the importance of allowing people agency and recognising the adult in any of these definitions.
So, what do we mean when we call someone a ‘vulnerable adult’? Martha Fineman reminds us that vulnerability is part of what makes us all human. We are all ‘vulnerable adults’:
‘Vulnerability initially should be understood as arising from our embodiment, which carries with it the ever-present possibility of harm, injury and misfortune from mildly adverse to catastrophically devastating events whether accidental, intentional or otherwise.’ (See Martha A. Fineman, ‘The Vulnerable Subject: Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition’, vol. 20, issue 1/2, Yale Journal of Law Feminism, 2008).
Laura Pritchard-Jones adds:
‘vulnerability …exists in every individual by virtue of our embodiment and corporeality which renders us susceptible to any physical and emotional harm. It exists because of our interdependence.’(Laura Pritchard-Jones, ‘The good, the bad, and the ‘vulnerable older adult’, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 38:1, 2016, 51-72).
These understandings of our innate vulnerability chime well with Christian theology which stresses our dependence on God and our interdependence on each other. Pritchard-Jones argues that we should not use vulnerable as a term ‘to denote certain subgroups of the population such as elderly or those with physical and cognitive impairment’ (2016, p. 56). Instead, we should understand that an adult is at risk when their support mechanisms of care fail to provide that care – either through their inadequacy, or through the deliberate behaviour of those who should be caring.
Most organisations now no longer talk about ‘vulnerable adults instead focusing on the concept of ‘risk’. Pritchard-Jones points out that ‘risk’ makes more sense. An elderly person is not necessarily at risk because of their age. But, if as well as being old, they are isolated and dependent on care from a series of agency staff, and who very little supervision, then we can understand any elderly person in this context could be exposed to some risk. The need for safeguarding is not inherent in the individual, but in the circumstances of their particular life-needs. This is also important, because it helps to focus when and how interventions are made.
One further criticism of the ‘vulnerable adult terminology’ also needs noting. It often leads to overtly paternalistic interventions. Once you have defined someone as ‘vulnerable’, it is all too easy to begin to make decisions for them. Pritchard-Jones notes how often vulnerability can become confused with some form of incapacity. This is particularly important if an issue is defined as ‘safeguarding’, as that comes with an obligation to act. The Church of England Parish Safeguarding Handbook says: ‘Please note that some adults may not consider themselves vulnerable but may be vulnerable to being abused by individuals in positions of leadership and responsibility.’ This begs the question who decides whether they are vulnerable, and what are the implications of such a decision? Is this decision made retrospectively, or prospectively? Again, this comes very close to being victim blaming. Does one have to be abused before being classed as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’?
If we accept that all people are vulnerable as part of the human condition, then we also acknowledge that any of us may be vulnerable to abuse by individuals in positions of leadership and responsibility, if and when such individuals misuse their positions and betray our trust. This is why we need to ensure that those in such positions work to proper codes of conduct. For clergy, there are the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy 2015. We also need mechanisms for when such codes of conduct are not followed, and where behaviour is not appropriate. Sometimes this will be a safeguarding issue – if the adult was someone in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness – and who was unable to protect him or herself against significant harm or exploitation.
This is especially the case if the adult has difficulties assessing their own risks, or is totally dependent on the abuser for basic care. However, abuse including sexual abuse happens to people who are not dependant on others for care, and who can assess these risks. Here, tragically they can still come in to contact with abusive individuals. Sometimes they may well have taken calculated risks; but that in no way makes them responsible for the behaviour of the abuser. In most organisations, such abuse will be understood as harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying or serious professional misconduct. It may, of course, also be criminal.
Harassment policies differ from safeguarding policies in one important respect: the agency they give to the individual, who has been the victim of the behaviour. In safeguarding policies, there is a duty to act on the assumption that the child or adult at risk is unlikely to have the capacity or freedom to report for themselves. Harassment policies acknowledge that some adults may be at greater risk because of the other inequalities still inherent in our society. These societal systemic risk factors are recognised in the protected characteristics covered by the 2010 Equality Act. Harassment and bullying polices can allow for different mechanisms – from informal to formal complaints – stressing the need for trained advisors to support people through the process.
What has been learnt from survivors of sexual harassment, including serious assault, is the importance of giving agency to the person who has been abused. Choices will need to be made about what is reported to whom, and how their experience is narrated by them and by others. This means that if ministers are trusted with an individual’s experience, they need to respect the choices of a victim, even if the minister thinks they would have acted differently themselves. Individuals may not respond as we think they should, and we may have to accept the decisions of some victims, for example, not to report to the police.
Clearly, if we know that an incident has violated a code of conduct within our professional world, we do need to explain why that must be reported to those who have responsibility for that individual, even if in respecting the wishes of the victim the report is anonymised. This is a different responsibility to safeguarding, where we have obligations and duties to inform. Harassment policies also allow for the reporting of behaviour that may be unintentionally offensive or may, if not checked, lead to abusive behaviour in the future.
I do understand that the Church of England needs to take safeguarding with the utmost seriousness. Poor practice in the past has allowed extremely damaging behaviour to go unchecked. My concern is that the church should recognise, and urgently reconsider, the very different issues when we are talking about adults who are abused within the church. We need robust harassment and bullying policies that allow for appropriate reporting, and which recognise the agency of those abused. We should move away from the language of vulnerable adults, acknowledging that all of us are vulnerable.
In doing so we properly acknowledge that the vast majority of adults who are harassed, sexually assaulted and abused within our church communities, are not adults who are in some way impaired in their ability to protect themselves. They may well be at vulnerable points and places in their lives, as many of those in our churches who come for pastoral care are. They may be in a situation with complex power dynamics. Yet, they could be anyone who is unfortunate enough to come across an abusive individual in a situation where that individual acts abusively towards them.
We need to continue to take safeguarding seriously. But we also need a much clearer understanding of who falls under the safeguarding legislation for adults, and I suggest we should be in better step with the definitions used by caring organisations that are beyond the church. We also need better harassment and bullying policies, and properly trained harassment advisers, who know how to help people make appropriate decisions for themselves; and how and when to call out bad behaviour.
Revd Canon Dr Emma Percy is Chaplain and Fellow Trinity College Oxford.