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Knowledge Base » Safeguarding » What is a Safeguarding Issue?

What is a Safeguarding Issue?

Last updated on 20th April 2023

As a society, it is vital that we all work together to protect our most vulnerable.

Organisations that routinely deal with children, the elderly, or otherwise vulnerable people, have policies and procedures in place to protect them from harm and keep them safe from those who may wish to exploit or hurt them. These are known as safeguarding procedures.

What is safeguarding?

Safeguarding means that authorities are required to take the relevant steps to ensure that people are able to live freely and without suffering from abuse or neglect.

Both children and adults can experience abuse, violence or neglect at the hands of someone that they trust. People who require care or support due to age, disability, mental health or addiction issues are protected against being abused or neglected by safeguarding policies.

Safeguarding is put in place so that organisations such as care homes, hospitals, prisons, schools, universities, local authorities and supported accommodation providers are empowered to identify potential safeguarding issues and act on them. This helps to protect vulnerable people.

Safeguarding involves caring for vulnerable people

What is a safeguarding issue?

Those who may encounter vulnerable people, from teachers to medical professionals, social workers to carers, require training on how to spot the signs that someone that they are interacting with may be suffering from some kind of abuse or neglect. They also need to know how to report this, who to report this to and how this should be dealt with.

Safeguarding issues can happen within an organisation. This can range from a single isolated incident to routine neglect or poor care of individuals that the organisation should serve.

The Care Act 2014 defines six principles of safeguarding that act as a framework for those who work with vulnerable people:

1. Empowerment – People should be encouraged to make their own decisions, understand the safeguarding process and act with ‘informed consent’.
2. Prevention – Taking action before harm occurs.
3. Proportionality – Measures taken should be as unintrusive as possible; reaction should be proportional to the concerns raised.
4. Protection – Support and protection are available for those in greatest need.
5. Partnership – Local solutions through services that work within communities; this means communication and understanding between the multiple services that may routinely encounter the vulnerable.
6. Accountability – Accountability and transparency within safeguarding; people understand their roles and take responsibility for caring for and protecting others.

Abuse and neglect can take different forms. Safeguarding issues that might affect both adults and children can encompass:

  • Physical abuse.
  • Sexual abuse.
  • Psychological abuse.
  • Neglect.
  • Domestic violence.
  • Organisational abuse.
  • Risk of radicalisation.
  • Modern slavery trafficking (1 in 4 victims is a child).
  • Discriminatory abuse.
  • Domestic violence.

Concerns that will often (but not exclusively) relate to adults include:

  • Self-neglect.
  • Financial abuse.

Safeguarding issues that usually affect children more often than adults, include:

  • Bullying.
  • Female genital mutilation (FGM).
  • Forced marriage.

There are a number of pieces of legislation that are relevant to the safeguarding of vulnerable individuals, which include:

Physical abuse can happen in children and adults

What is a safeguarding issue for an adult?

An ‘at risk’ adult is considered to be anyone who is over the age of 18 and at risk of abuse or neglect as a result of their care or support requirements.

All local authorities have responsibilities when it comes to safeguarding. This is outlined in the Care Act 2014.

Adults who are often at a higher risk of abuse or neglect include:

  • The elderly (in particular if they have significant mobility issues, dementia or require frequent care or support with their daily life).
  • Adults with a disability or cognitive impairment/difference.
  • Individuals with communication issues (through disability or language barriers).
  • Those with significant substance or alcohol abuse problems (if their addiction affects their ability to look after themselves).

Anyone who works with vulnerable adults should have an understanding of what constitutes a safeguarding concern and what should be done about it.

Some cases of abuse and neglect will be obvious and easy to ‘prove’; other types of abuse can be hidden and difficult to quantify. Abuse is especially pernicious when it is being perpetrated by a loved one, because the victim may not want to admit it.

This is where it is particularly important for those in positions of responsibility to act as advocates for the vulnerable, be vigilant about spotting safeguarding issues and intervene accordingly. This means acting with care, compassion and common sense as well as following your organisation’s safeguarding policy and staying within the law.

Safeguarding issues, especially those within families, can be complex. Older adults who struggle to care for themselves and rely on others are especially vulnerable.

Abusers will often:

  • Try to isolate victims, both physically and by limiting their interactions with others.
  • Gain control over the victim’s life (taking over their finances, getting access to their bank cards, handling their medication and appointments etc).
  • Lie or ‘gaslight’ both victims and authorities to cover their tracks and leave people feeling confused and questioning what they have seen or heard.

This is why it is extremely important as a person who works with elderly or vulnerable adults, that you let them know that they can trust you and are able come to you within any concerns or fears. You should also be able to identify warning signs of a safeguarding issue yourself.

Signs of physical abuse in adults:

  • Unexplained injuries: bruises, cuts, broken bones, burns etc.
  • Change in behaviour, including the adult showing extreme fear towards a certain person, angry outbursts or depression.

Signs of sexual abuse in adults:

  • Unexplained injuries and bruising (especially around thighs, genital area).
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Pregnancy.
  • Changes in behaviour, person becomes withdrawn, angry or depressed.
  • Unexplained blood in underwear or on bed sheets.
  • Person makes unexpected or inappropriate sexual statements.

Signs of abuse within the organisation:

  • Lack of care and cleanliness (both of residents/end-users and the environment).
  • Bed sores.
  • Failure to provide medical attention.
  • Lack of food and water or lack of consideration for dietary requirements.
  • Bullying and name calling.
  • Residents showing fear towards certain member(s) of staff.

Signs of self-neglect:

  • Unkempt appearance (including clothes and hair).
  • Lack of personal hygiene.
  • Unclean or unhygienic environment (includes overcrowded, untidy and dirty living arrangements, failure to clean up after pets, the presence of pests, indicators of hoarding).
  • Missing medical appointments, not taking medication etc.

Signs of financial abuse:

  • Unexpected cash withdrawals.
  • Sudden changes in the way bank account is used.
  • Sudden change in behaviour of victim such as withdrawing from friends, lack of interest in social events, lack of money for basic necessities.
  • Unexplained charges on account, gambling transactions, money being sent abroad.
  • Person no longer has access to their own bank cards or account.
  • Person is confused about finances.
  • Debt.
  • Mail being intercepted or redirected.

Abuse or neglect might be perpetrated against an elderly or vulnerable person in their own home by a spouse, partner, family member or friend. Sometimes a paid, or informal, carer can also be responsible.

Occasionally, a stranger will insert themselves into an elderly or vulnerable person’s life with the intention of exploiting them. This will often be done usual fraudulent tactics and manipulation (such as those associated with so-called ‘romance scams’) and can result in significant financial loss.

Within organisations, such as care homes or hospitals, occasionally a member of staff will abuse their position of power and abuse or neglect someone they should be looking after. It is also possible for a visiting friend, or relative, to be perpetuating crimes against the vulnerable person, especially if they were doing so prior to them becoming a resident in the facility.

It is important to keep in mind the full range of ways that abuse and neglect can occur, which are not always obvious to outsiders.

This includes:

  • Psychological abuse (being lied to, verbally abused manipulated, coerced).
  • Neglect (failure to provide adequate care, withholding medication, not providing adequate food or water and not maintaining a clean living environment for the vulnerable person).
  • Slavery (forced labour, being made to work for little or no pay, forced prostitution and trafficking).
Safeguarding carers have to look for signs of abuse in adults

What is a safeguarding issue for a child?

Each organisation that comes into contact with children should have safeguarding policies in place. The type of organisation and level of interaction they have with children will affect their specific safeguarding requirements.

Most organisations will have their own safeguarding policy, which should be transparent, clear and a key part of training for anyone working, or volunteering, with children and young adults.

Safeguarding is necessary to keep children and young people safe from harm and to protect them from those who wish to exploit or hurt them.

As one of the key principles in protecting vulnerable children is partnership, this means that multiple agencies may be responsible for noticing and raising concerns in order to protect children. This means not only understanding potential safeguarding issues but being willing to communicate these with other organisations and professionals.

Abuse and neglect can take many different forms.

Common signs that might indicate a safeguarding concern that relates to a child include:

  • Unexplained bruising or injuries.
  • Changes in behaviour, such as a child becoming withdrawn or angry.
  • Prolonged absence from school or college.
  • Sexualised behaviour, inappropriate for their age.
  • Self-harm, alcohol or drug use.
  • Child appears dirty, unkempt or in inappropriate clothes for the weather.
  • Sudden weight loss (or gain).
  • Child is hungry, no food in lunch box or very little food.
  • A child suddenly having unexplained expensive items (phones, jewellery, designer clothes) and large amounts of cash.
  • Religious or political beliefs that are extreme or violent in nature.

In some cases, a child might approach an authority figure and disclose something to them that poses a safeguarding concern. This could be anything from abuse that is happening at home to an inappropriate relationship with an adult either inside or outside of the organisation, to child grooming (including sexual grooming by a paedophile, gang-related or criminal grooming, or grooming in relation to human trafficking/forced labour).

It is important to understand the wide range of abuse that children can experience and not to develop tunnel vison that abuse always takes the traditional forms of physical or psychological abuse. According to the NSPCC, neglect is actually the most common form of child abuse, with research of 2,275 11- to 17-year-olds revealing that at least one in ten had been neglected.

What are the stages in raising a safeguarding issue?

To identify a safeguarding issue, you must know the warning signs to look out for. For people working in organisations that routinely deal with vulnerable people, this will have been covered during training.

You should also know who deals with safeguarding within your organisation and how to contact them.

There are also steps that organisations must take to limit the chance of a safeguarding issue occurring and to protect the vulnerable, such as requiring all staff or volunteers pass a DBS check prior to being hired.

If you have a safeguarding issue that relates to a child:

1. Observe: Note down observations you have made in as much detail as possible. Include names, dates etc.
2. Report: You should report your concerns to the relevant person either in your organisation (usually the Designated Safeguarding Lead or DSL) or contact your local authority. In an emergency always call 999.
3. Investigate: The relevant, qualified people should investigate the concerns raised. Depending on how immediate the danger is, a report might be made to social services or the police.
4. Escalate: If you do not feel your concerns were taken seriously you should go to a more senior member of staff or contact a relevant organisation.

Advice is to always act when you have legitimate concerns that abuse is occurring or a person is at significant risk of harm, even if you have done so and your initial concerns were ignored. Whistle blowers are given protection by the Public Interest Disclosure Act, so it is important that you do not stay quiet if you have seen, heard or been told something that has raised reg flags about a safeguarding issue.

If your concern relates to a child and you find it has not been followed up, you can contact the NSPCC’s Whistleblowing Advice Line on 0800 028 0285 or email them at

A young boy being neglected

What happens when a safeguarding issue is raised?

The way a safeguarding issue is dealt with will depend on:

  • The organisation itself.
  • The specific issue.
  • Who the perpetrator is (if known) and if they are inside or outside of the organisation?
  • Which other agencies need to become involved.

The reaction to a safeguarding issue should always be proportionate and, where possible, place the victim at the centre.

Often, victims of abuse or harm are unable, or unwilling, to disclose information. This could be due to fear, because they do not want to get their abusers in trouble, because they have a distrust of authority figures or sometimes because they themselves do not realise that they are being abused. This is where specially trained professionals are often called in. These may be from the police, social services or members of the medical profession.

The end-goal of reporting any safeguarding concerns is to protect the victim.

However, by reporting a safeguarding concern you might also:

  • Help to expose organisational failings.
  • Help to improve training for others.
  • Effect future legislation or policy writing.
  • Encourage others to speak up.

As the result of an investigation that happens once a safeguarding issue is raised, you can expect an outcome that relates to the initial concern.

This could include:

  • Retraining (where there has been an organisational failure).
  • Staff dismissal (where it is clear someone has acted wilfully to harm someone in their care).
  • Legal action (where the safeguarding concern exposed illegal activity, perpetrators may be arrested, cautioned or convicted).
  • Child being taken into care or placed with alternative parent/carers.
  • Additional support being provided by the local authority (such as an elderly person being moved to supported accommodation to assist with day-to-day living).
  • Medical attention being given or medication prescribed.
  • New policies being written, better training given, new positions appointed to strengthen existing safeguarding procedures.

Once a safeguarding issue is noted and raised it needs to be acted upon. This will usually happen quickly, depending on the level of ‘immediate harm’ that is identified. By reporting a safeguarding concern and making sure it is acted upon, you are protecting a vulnerable person from harm and potentially saving other potential victims in the process.

If you choose a career that involves working with elderly or vulnerable adults, or with children, you should anticipate that safeguarding will be an integral part of your day-to-day life at work. It is vital that you are able to act with honesty, integrity and empathy and with a clear understanding of how to safeguard those you work with, from harm.

Safeguarding in a nursing home

What is not a safeguarding issue?

When raising and investigating safeguarding concerns, it is important to remember that one of the key principals is proportionality. If you have felt the need to ask the question – is this a safeguarding concern? – the chances are that it is worthy of investigation.

However, this needs to be done in a way that is:

  • Proportional to the level of concern/potential harm.
  • Empathetic and allows the potential victim dignity.
  • Falls within the remits of legislation and best practice.

If you are seeing individuals on a regular basis, it is likely that you will be able to spot red flags and sudden changes within their behaviour, even if they are subtle.

If you are working in a care home, for example, and you hear a resident have a loud argument with a visitor, this might be a safeguarding concern. It would be best to defuse the situation and ask the antagonist to leave. If possible, once the resident is alone you could ask them about what happened and make a note of the incident. If you raise this with your superior, they will likely identify this as a possible safeguarding issue and ask staff to be vigilant about future episodes.

If it is just a one-off occurrence, it may be that family tensions were just running high that day. However, if it becomes a pattern of behaviour, or if the resident begins to show intense fear towards that person visiting or makes alarming statements, this becomes a safeguarding issue worthy of more in-depth investigation.

If a child forgets their lunch on one occasion, but appears otherwise well-fed and happy, this is unlikely to be a safeguarding concern. If a child is routinely hungry and attends school with no lunch money or very little in their lunch box, this is a potential neglect situation and would need to be raised with your safeguarding lead.

Safeguarding is something that needs to be understood in context. If you notice changes in behaviour, even subtle ones, of those that you know well, it is important to act accordingly. These are changes that may not be picked up on by a stranger, or someone without training, but by being vigilant and reporting your concerns for the relevant authorities to follow up on, you can protect vulnerable people against harm and neglect.

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About the author

Vicky Miller

Vicky Miller

Vicky has a BA Hons Degree in Professional Writing. She has spent several years creating B2B content and writing informative articles and online guides for clients within the fields of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, recruitment, education and training. Outside of work she enjoys yoga, world cinema and listening to fiction podcasts.

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