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10 things I’ve learnt about living safe from harm

Jonathan Senker, CEO 24 November 2023

A reflection for Safeguarding Adults Week from our CEO, Jonathan Senker.

I’ve spent a career so far trying to figure out how we support people to live a good life, free from abuse. I’ve got stuff right, and to my eternal regret, I’ve got stuff wrong. 

Safeguarding Adults Week has given me pause for reflection. Here are the top 10 things I’ve learnt. 

1. Safeguarding is bigger than safeguarding processes – and much more rewarding.

Safeguarding processes are often what we do long after fundamental stuff has gone wrong. In particular, neglect happens more, and abuse takes place and goes unchecked, when we fail to build connections and community. Great safeguarding is preventative work supporting people to lead a rich, connected life.

2. Be clear about the why and the how.

Safeguarding must be about enabling people to lead a good life of their choosing, with dignity and free from abuse, or neglect. Safeguarding processes must be carried out consistently with this. It’s a time to listen and empower the person more, not less; not always leaving the person on the outside of a professional discussion’.

3. At the heart of every abuse enquiry is a failure to hear and respond to people’s voices. 

We can pre-empt and prevent this. We must systematically ensure that people at greatest risk, including people living in large, congregate services, always have a trusting relationship with at least one person; someone who cares about them and is confident to speak out with them or on their behalf. This could be a family member who is well-supported, or a skilled independent advocate.

4. Safeguarding is culture. 

Professional curiosity, confidence to speak out, trusting our gut – as this may be the expression of accumulated wisdom and humanity that we cannot yet codify, are all needed. Challenging closed cultures and closed minds and assumptions. These characteristics must be assiduously valued, nurtured and celebrated by leaders — and supported with the reflective space to validate concerns and decide next steps.

5. Trust but check.

For example, at VoiceAbility, our policies require our advocates to speak with the local authority to ensure that safeguarding alerts have been made – even when providers tell us that’s been done. It’s not been a popular policy with several service providers, but it’s proved itself essential to ensuring people are protected from harm.

6. Chosen risks and imposed risks are not equivalent.

Deciding to go skydiving is very different from being forced to live with people who may hurt you. And not just because it turns out that skydiving is relatively safe. Although you won’t find me doing it. Ever.

7. If it hurts, it hurts.

Obvious, yes, but so often we have heard people being assaulted being dismissed, or taken less seriously as it was by another client.’ And it hurts wherever it is. We are concerned by the lack of oversight by local authorities of safeguarding in several mental health services, where it appears that their power to delegate responsibilities has been stretched to the point at which their thread of accountability is at risk of breaking.

8. Focus relentlessly on the basics. 

When Lord Laming’s inquiry reported on the tragic death of 8 year old Victoria Climbie, 19 of his recommendations referred to recording. Awfully, two decades later, the same issue remains. The inquest into Sally Lewis’s death found in May 2023 that poor recording played a central part in the gross failure, which contributed to her preventable death from constipation and neglect. It’s boringly true; good admin helps save lives. So, too, do clear systems and processes.

9. Measure what you need to manage and manage it. 

Our research indicates dramatic variance between local authorities in their response to safeguarding alerts. We suspect that in many areas, the processes designed to keep people safe are threadbare. Local authorities and Safeguarding Adult Boards need to monitor, measure and compare data with others. And they must take action to ensure that processes designed to identify and address possible harm are actually doing so.

10. Never stop pushing. 

Tenacity is needed to support individual people. Advocates persist. This is vital at a system level too. We know what the most recent inquiry said, and what the next ones will too. Insufficient communication within and between agencies, indicators missed, unsafe culture, people not valued, discriminatory attitudes, carelessness, and a gap in human understanding and relationship. Collectively, we must demand a little less expression of commitment to learning the lessons, and a lot more action to make the changes and ensure their impact.

Beyond safeguarding

I dream that one day, we’ll be able to stop thinking about safeguarding as a separate activity. Instead, we’ll live well and enable others to do so. Safety from harm will become a side effect of being connected, valued, equal, loved, and considered of equal worth.

Until then, these are a few of the things that are going through my mind.

I’d love to hear your views. What resonates — and what’s missing?