Language and Terminology

Terminology in Safeguarding can be complex, contentious and difficult to apply in practice.  Terms such as ‘vulnerable adult’, ‘capacity’ and ‘child protection’ are commonly used but can be misunderstood and misused by people. 

Professional groups such as Health Care providers, the Police, Social Care workers all have specific roles and responsibilities within Safeguarding and terms have a very specific meaning.  For example, social workers have an explicit responsibility to investigate and make inquiries into the circumstances of children considered to be at risk of ‘significant harm’ as part of child protection investigations.

Many Local Authorities and Local Safeguarding Boards will define ‘vulnerable adults’ using the broad definition of a ‘vulnerable adult’ referred to in the 1997 Consultation Paper, ‘Who decides?, issued by the Lord Chancellor’s Department.  A vulnerable adult is a person 18 years or over:

who is 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 take care of him or herself, or unable to protect him or herself against significant harm or exploitation”.

Adults and children have varying degrees of capacity to protect themselves from harm.  The lower the capacity the more vulnerable a person can be.  Different circumstances and environments can all impact on a person’s capacity to protect their own wellbeing.

For example, a two year old child is often more vulnerable than a fifteen year old as they are generally less able to protect themselves from harm.  However, a person’s capacity to protect themselves from harm is not always as obvious as this.  If we consider the staff and students here at DMU it can be difficult to identify who is more able to protect themselves from harm and who may be more vulnerable.   It is often this level of complexity that causes difficulties for people to either know how to respond to others they feel might be at risk of harm, and for people who might experience their rights and freedoms being curtailed by others under the guise of ‘protection’.

Consideration also needs to be given to equality and cultural issues.  Everyone has the fundamental right to be safe.  There is a misconception that abuse is defined differently and more accepted in some cultures.  This belief may prevent some people responding appropriately to safeguarding issues through fear of doing the wrong thing.  It should be remembered that:

'Abuse is not condoned by any racial or religious group. We should not seek excuses for abuse. Children must be safeguarded. To work effectively and assess whether abuse is taking place we need to understand the context'. (Baldwin 1990)

Culture may explain the context in which the abuse is happening but not the behaviour or action of an abuser.

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