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.