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No proper safeguarding for adults at risk without real change

Until vital steps are taken, social workers will be left swimming against a tide of inadequate supports, writes Vivian Geiran

By Vivian Geiran Original article was in the Irish Examiner printed version on November 11th, 2021. 

Even the most capable and independent of adults reading this do not know the day nor the hour when they may become dependent on others for care. In such eventuality, we are entitled to have confidence that our needs will be met, and our rights protected, and particularly that we will not be neglected or abused. And if we are exposed to such risks of abuse or neglect from whatever quarter, then we should be assured, at the very least, of the State's underlying responsibility and role in protecting is, safeguarding our rights and ensuring our welfare.

Unfortunately, we have seen too often that adults in Ireland, at risk for various reasons, have been let down by our system of care and protection. 

Adult safeguarding is the process of protecting adults with care and support needs from abuse and neglect. Safeguarding should also include empowering people to protect themselves. Social workers, as the lead professionals in adult safeguarding, work daily to empower, protect, and support adults at risk of abuse in the community and in care settings.

Despite their best efforts, however, these social workers - unlike colleagues working in child protection, for example - are severely hampered by lack of appropriate legislation as well as other systemic failings. 

Covid-19 made that bad situation worse. Concerned about the impact of the pandemic on adults at risk of abuse, the Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW) campaigned for increased safeguarding measures to counteract the negative impact of quarantining and cocooning, for example, which effectively locked some adults at risk in with their potential or actual abusers.

The IASW called for a national information campaign during the pandemic so adults at risk would know how and where to seek help, if needed.

The HSE National Safeguarding Office coordinates and leads the implementation of safeguarding policy in HSE disability services and services for older people. The recent publication of the National Safeguarding Office annual report for 202, as well as publicity surrounding the deeply disturbing 'Grace' and Brandon' cases involving sexual abuse in foster care and residential settings respectively, have further highlighted the significant deficiencies in Ireland's capability and willingness to protect adults at risk. 

This allows for numerous other examples of neglect and abuse of adults in various settings, as well as the disproportionately high Covid-related death rate among nursing home residents. All this points to an adult safeguarding system that is creaking, under-legislated, under-resourced, and generally neglected, while those working in it struggle to do their best. 

While the HSE's Safeguarding Office annual report records a 9% drop in safeguarding referrals in 202, compared to 2019, the IASW had predicted such a reduction in reports. This was based on our concerns regarding the impact of Covid, and in the absence of appropriate measures being taken, for which we advocated, including a national information campaign. 

The HSE repost acknowledges that there were reduced opportunities, because of the pandemic, to witness and disclose abuse and neglect. The Safeguarding Office statistics still provide an indication of the stark numbers of adults at risk of or experiencing abuse of neglect, while individual cases, like those of 'Grace' and 'Brandon' shine a light into the darkest corners of those numbers. 

The IASW has consistently highlighted the issues that need to be addressed including: 

  • Lack of political will to make necessary changes;
  • Lack of progress on required legislative and policy change;
  • Failure to adequately resource current safeguarding policy; 
  • Unhelpful organisational cultures that militate against reporting and responding appropriately to abuse and neglect of adults.

Added to all of this has been the impact of Covid, which the UN last year acknowledged at a global level as resulting in those adults already at risk facing even higher levels of risk of violence, abuse, and neglect.

The time for tut-tutting and hand-wringing is long past and the IASW is no calling Government to pass and implement adult safeguarding legislation as a matter of priority; ensure the HSE carries out a full review of existing safeguarding systems, structures, policies and practices -with appropriate change being implemented on the basis of those findings; and appoint a chief social worker in the Department of Health/HSE - a 'buck stops here' position which would allow the lead profession in adult safeguarding to lead and be led appropriately. 

Until these steps are taken, social workers, adults at risk, and others with whom we work, will be left swimming against the tide of inadequate supports to address the risk and the reality of preventable abuse and neglect. 

Ireland's first 'Adult Safeguarding Day' public awareness event takes place on November 19. This presents a great opportunity. It should mark a turning point in making some meaningful changes, to effectively safeguard those adults already at risk in our society, as well as those of us - or our loved ones - who might become more dependent and at risk in the future. All of us deserve that basic protection, care, and reassurance when we most need it. 

Vivian Geiran is adjunct assistant professor at the Trinity College Dublin School of Social Work and Social Policy and the chair of the Irish Association of Social Workers.