What is ‘vulnerable’?

I’ve been thinking about the issue of the way we use the term ‘vulnerable’ adult in safeguarding investigations for a while. I attended a course a while ago which advised me that the usage was changing due to consultations with service user groups and that we were now to describe potential victims of abuse as adults ‘at risk’ due to a generalised dislike of the term ‘vulnerable’ and I can wholeheartedly agree with that.

In fact, it seems easier to use adjectives to describe groups of people but it continues to feel uncomfortable doing that. ‘Vulnerable’ adults, ‘learning disabled’ adults, ‘disabled’ people. Someone, being an adult at risk or an adult with learning disabilities or a person with a physical disability allows a mental appreciation of the individual before one particular aspect of who they are.

The difficulty I think with adults who are ‘at risk’ of being abused is that the definition is quite lose and can change from situation to situation.  Partly, one of the first issues we have to ‘cross’ is  a question of whether the person ‘at risk’ is ‘at risk’ in a statutory sense or whether they are an adult with capacity who is a victim of crime and the ‘curveball’ of ‘unwise’ decisions looms large. It is an issue that doesn’t arise in Childrens’ services as children are defined by their age. For adults though, the route towards an investigation or not, by social services, my lie on whether they are deemed to be ‘at risk’ or not. I was reminded of this by this story in a local Kent newspaper.

There are some aspects of it present in a case I have been working with for a while – not identical but there are some parallels. I was intrigued that the alleged perpetrator had a social worker who had contacted the alleged victim

‘The court heard Mrs Macedonski spoke to Deo’s social worker, but ignored her advice to tell the police. “She was concerned about getting him in trouble,” added Mr Yale.’

Quite rightly, Mrs Macedonski was given the information and advice and the assumption was that she would act on this advice – and she could take a decision on it. Is Mrs Macedonski an adult ‘at risk’. On the face of it, no, there’s no reason to believe that she is. There is no reason to believe she does not have capacity and she is making an active decision to use her funds ‘unwisely’ – this is a criminal act rather than a safeguarding act – that’s where the differences arise with the circumstance that I worked in.

But it’s a story that has a useful lesson to social workers who are based in adult services about the meanings of being ‘at risk’ and ‘vulnerable’ and the relationship with capacity assessments.  People can be victims of crime without being victims of abuse.

Often assumptions are made that someone is ‘at risk’ merely on the basis of age or disability and that’s not the case or that someone is not ‘at risk’ because of the way that they present themselves.

For my mind, the way we interpret ‘vulnerabilities’ or being ‘at risk’ of abuse allegations is key to one of the challenges in adult social work. The boundaries are sometimes fudged and subjective. We can’t always do exactly what we might want to do to protect everyone because there are some people who don’t need protecting.

Personally, I think it’s one of the reasons the adult safeguarding procedures are much fuzzier than the equivalent in children’s services. We are, for the most part, dealing with judgements from an earlier stage in the process.


4 thoughts on “What is ‘vulnerable’?

  1. There are also problems the other way around. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 introduces some really difficult issues for disabled people, as all disabled people, especially those who receive social care services, are defined as ‘vulnerable adults’. This demeans us, as well as protecting us, and means that we can’t choose who we want to employ using direct payments or personal budgets. We can’t employ anyone on the adult barred list even though their offence might be entirely unrelated to any situation that might come up in our own situation (if we do, the employee will be guilty of an offence). This is a human rights issue for disabled people but when I consulted a solicitor, whilst confirming that in her view it is a human rights issue, her opinion was that the EHRC would not be bold enough to fund a challenge because of the current nervousness around safeguarding and abuse (I can’t fund a case myself because I’m not eligible for legal aid and can’t risk the ISA/Home Office’s costs).

    The other aspect of this which is very worrying from a human rights perspective is that the ISA’s processes for considering representations and requests to take individuals off the barring lists are completely non-transparent and unaccountable, and the ISA is apparently able to delay for as many months or years as it likes. When the Act was passed, the principles of natural justice went right out of the window and for people who shouldn’t be on the barred lists this is an extremely serious issue, preventing them from earning a living.

    This situation can only be challenged if it becomes high profile enough to attract organisational support. Any ideas gratefully received!!

  2. Thanks Jane. I think there are many issues in the definitions regarding who is ‘at risk’ and ‘vulnerable’ – hence the post. I didn’t realise that all people who receive social care services are autonamically deemed to be ‘at risk’ – actually I didn’t think that was the case because eligibility does not affect capacity and being an adult ‘at risk’ means many different things.
    I perhaps need to familiarise myself with more of the details.

    As for support, I wonder if any disability groups or advocacy services would run with this one.

    Good luck.

    • For details of why we’re all deemed ‘vulnerable adults’ even if we’re not, see Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 Section 59. A couple of snippets from that section:

      59 Vulnerable adults
      (1) A person is a vulnerable adult if he has attained the age of 18 and—
      (a) he is in residential accommodation,
      (b) he is in sheltered housing,
      (c) he receives domiciliary care,
      (d) he receives any form of health care,
      (e) he is detained in lawful custody,
      (f) he is by virtue of an order of a court under supervision by a person
      exercising functions for the purposes of Part 1 of the Criminal Justice
      and Court Services Act 2000 (c. 43),
      (g) he receives a welfare service of a prescribed description,
      (h) he receives any service or participates in any activity provided
      specifically for persons who fall within subsection (9),
      (i) payments are made to him (or to another on his behalf) in pursuance of
      arrangements under section 57 of the Health and Social Care Act 2001
      (c. 15), or
      (j) he requires assistance in the conduct of his own affairs.

      …. and

      (4) Domiciliary care is care of any description or assistance falling within
      subsection (5) whether provided continuously or not which a person receives
      in a place where he is, for the time being, living.
      (5) Assistance falls within this subsection if it is (to any extent) provided to a
      person by reason of—
      (a) his age;
      (b) his health;
      (c) any disability he has.


      So disabled adults receiving personal budgets or direct payments are caught, fair and square, even if we are far from ‘vulnerable’! As a disabled adult myself I find it insulting.

      • Thanks for that, Jane. I was going off the top of my head and made wrong assumptions. I agree. That is a flawed definition of ‘vulnerable. I would also find it insulting merely on the basis of receiving a care service.

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