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Safeguarding Guide for Counsellors

Responsibilities, worrying signs, legislation, concerns and required training for robust safeguarding

Safeguarding Guides » Safeguarding Guide for Counsellors

Counsellors play a crucial role in improving the health and wellbeing of our society. They help people talk about their feelings, think about their choices or their behaviour, and make positive changes in their lives. Counsellors also share a responsibility with all other members of the healthcare professions for the safety and wellbeing of all clients and their protection from harm, abuse, exploitation or unsafe practice.

What is safeguarding?

Counsellors may work with individuals, couples, families or groups, and may provide counselling face to face, over the telephone or online. They can work in a variety of settings, such as schools, universities and colleges, GP surgeries and hospitals, in the workplace, addiction agencies, disability support groups or private practice. They work with clients who are parents, members of families, and children or young people, and safeguarding is therefore a serious concern for many practitioners.

Their clients may be vulnerable as they can be experiencing difficult and distressing events in their lives, such as bereavement, divorce, health problems or job concerns, or they may have more general underlying feelings of anxiety or dissatisfaction with life.

Safeguarding means protecting people from harm including physical, emotional, sexual and financial harm and neglect. Counsellors have a duty to recognise the signs and symptoms of abuse and to act on any concerns. Duties to safeguard clients are required by professional regulators and service regulators and are supported by law.

The Care Act 2014 lists six key principles of safeguarding. These are intended to form a core set of standards for anyone who has a responsibility for safeguarding. Although these principles have been designed with a focus on vulnerable adults, they should be applied to any type of vulnerable individual, children included.

The principles are as follows:

  • Accountability – in the event of a disclosure, if an adult or young person entrusts you with information that you know could be indicative of abuse, you must be clear with the individual that you need to report what you have heard.
  • Empowerment – it’s important for any person who has been a victim of abuse to feel that they have control over their situation. Support and encouragement are key to effective working with a victim of abuse or neglect.
  • Partnership – it is important to work in partnership with your local authority and all services or organisations in your community that might be able to assist in detecting and reporting abuse.
  • Prevention – it is sometimes possible to take action before harm has come to an individual. If you know the signs and indicators of abuse, you will understand when something is not quite right and will be better placed to report any concerns for an individual’s wellbeing.
  • Proportionality – when a safeguarding incident occurs, you should report your concerns in a manner that is appropriate for the risk presented. For example, if you suspect that a child is in immediate danger, dialling 999 is the recommended response.
  • Protection – it is crucial to be an ally for individuals who have experienced or who are at risk of abuse. Supporting and representing these individuals in the appropriate manner can help to protect them from further harm.

What risk factors make someone more likely to experience abuse?

Abuse and neglect can occur anywhere to anyone. Any adult or child can be at risk of abuse; however, there are a number of factors that can increase a child’s vulnerability to abuse and neglect including, but not limited to:

  • Very young children.
  • Children with disabilities and health problems.
  • Socioeconomic factors such as poverty, poor housing and deprivation.
  • Family factors such as parental/carer substance misuse problems, parental/carer mental health problems and domestic abuse. These factors may be compounded if the parent/carer lacks support from family or friends and experiences social isolation.
  • The parent or carer does not engage with services.
  • There have been one or more previous episodes of child abuse or neglect.
  • The parent or carer has a mental health or substance misuse problem which has a significant impact on the tasks of parenting.
  • There is chronic parental stress.
  • The parent or carer experienced abuse or neglect as a child.
  • A family history of maltreatment.
  • Being in care, a looked-after child.
  • A history of offending, either parent or child.

 

An adult at risk of abuse may:

  • Have an illness affecting their mental or physical health.
  • Be physically dependent on others.
  • Have a sensory impairment.
  • Have a learning disability.
  • Suffer from drug or alcohol problems.
  • Have low self-esteem.
  • Be unable to make their own decisions.
  • Have a previous history of abuse.
  • Have negative experiences of disclosing abuse.
  • Be of increasing age.
  • Be frail.
  • Have experienced a lack of access to health and social services or high-quality information.

 

These lists are not exhaustive, and other people might also be considered to be adults and/or children at risk.

The types of abuse children can encounter

Statutory guidance across the four countries of the UK describes four main categories of child abuse, and these definitions will normally be reflected in local organisations’ policies and procedures.

The four categories are:

  • Physical harm/abuse – this may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child/young person. Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately induces, illness in a child/young person. Harm can also occur due to practices linked to faith and culture, for example, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
  • Emotional harm/abuse – this is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child/young person such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child/young person’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may include not giving the child the opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or “making fun” of what they say or how they communicate. It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. These may include interactions that are beyond a child’s developmental capacity, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child from participating in normal social interaction. It may involve seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another. It may involve serious bullying, including cyberbullying, causing children/young people frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children/young people. Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child/young person, though it may occur alone.
  • Sexual abuse – this involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetrative acts, for example rape or oral sex, or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, pornographic sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse, including via the internet. Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males; women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children.
  • Neglect – this is the persistent failure to meet a child/young person’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child/young person’s development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy, for example as a result of maternal substance abuse, maternal mental ill health or learning difficulties or a cluster of such issues. Where there is domestic abuse and violence towards a carer, the needs of the child may be neglected. Once a child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to:
    – Provide adequate food, clothing and shelter, including exclusion from home or abandonment.
    – Protect a child/young person from physical and emotional harm or danger.
    – Ensure adequate supervision, including the use of inadequate caregivers.
    – Ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment, and also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child/young person’s basic emotional needs.

The types of abuse adults can encounter

There are ten types of abuse listed in the Care Act (2014).

These are:

  • Physical abuse – this may involve physical violence, misuse of medication, inappropriate restraint or sanctions.
  • Sexual abuse – this can include verbal sexual abuse, non-consensual touching, fondling, physical restraint, cornering, tickling, kissing, excessive cleaning of genitals, enemas, intercourse, sodomy, oral sex, invasion of privacy and stalking.
  • Psychological abuse – this includes emotional abuse, threats of harm or abandonment, deprivation of contact, humiliation, blaming, controlling, intimidation, harassment and verbal abuse.
  • Financial or material abuse – including theft, fraud, exploitation, pressure in connection with wills, property, inheritance or financial transactions, and misuse or misappropriation of property, possessions or benefits.
  • Neglect and acts of omission – including ignoring medical or physical care needs, failure to provide access to appropriate health, social care or educational services, or withholding medication, adequate nutrition and heating.
  • Discriminatory abuse – including racist, sexist or abuse based on a person’s disability.
  • Domestic abuse – including psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse, and so-called honour-based violence.
  • Modern slavery – includes slavery, human trafficking, forced labour and domestic servitude.
  • Organisational abuse – including neglect and poor care practice within an institution or specific care setting such as a hospital or care home.
  • Self-neglect – includes a wide range of behaviour neglecting to care for personal hygiene, health or surroundings and includes behaviour such as hoarding.

What safeguarding issues do counsellors need to be aware of?

Abuse and neglect can take many forms, ranging from exploitation and disrespectful treatment to physical harm. It can be at a low level, and take place over a long time, or it can take place over a short time and be more extreme. It is all abuse.

Organisations and individuals should not be constrained in their view of what constitutes abuse, neglect or harm and should always consider the circumstances on a person-centred basis. Adult and children safeguarding concerns vary according to the nature of harm, the circumstances it arose in and the people concerned.

A counsellor working directly with a child or vulnerable adult may hear or see signs that reasonably indicate preliminary evidence that they or another person have suffered, is suffering, or is likely to suffer actual abuse. The abuse may be physical, psychological, sexual, financial, material or discriminatory, or involve neglect.

A counsellor may hear or see signs that reasonably indicate preliminary evidence that the client has inflicted, is inflicting, or is likely to inflict actual abuse on a child or vulnerable adult. This is possible whether the client is an adult or a child.

The abuse or neglect can be deliberate, or the result of ignorance or a lack of proper training. Recognising abuse or neglect is crucial, and it may be:

  • A single act or repeated acts.
  • Cause harm temporarily or over a period of time.
  • Occur when a person is persuaded to enter into a transaction to which they have not consented to, or cannot consent to.
  • Be an act of neglect or an omission to act.
  • Occur through deliberate targeting/grooming.
  • Occur in any relationship.
  • Be perpetrated by an individual or as part of a group/organisation.
  • Be the result of deliberate intent, or be unintentional, through negligence or ignorance.
  • Several abusive acts are crimes, and informing the police must be a key consideration.

The roles and responsibilities of a counsellor in regard to safeguarding

Counsellors have an individual responsibility to safeguard children, vulnerable adults, their clients and themselves; to identify and respond to allegations of abuse and neglect. Counsellors have a duty to safeguard all clients, but also to provide additional measures for clients who are less able to protect themselves from harm or abuse. Safeguarding adults and children covers a spectrum of activity from prevention through to multi-agency responses where harm and abuse occurs. Multi-agency procedures apply where there is concern of neglect, harm or abuse to a patient defined under the Care Act (2014) guidance as vulnerable.

A counsellor’s role in safeguarding is to:

  • Recognise – you should have a clear understanding of what the different signs and symptoms of potential abuse, harm and neglect can be. Robust safeguarding training can help you to spot these signs and symptoms.
  • Respond – it is essential that you respond appropriately and do not ignore the situation.
  • Report – concerns need to be reported without delay. Confidentiality is important, so only share information with those who are a part of the safeguarding process.
  • Record – you should make precise, comprehensive notes that detail everything about your safeguarding concern.
  • Refer – if the safeguarding risk is urgent and you suspect somebody is under immediate or severe threat, you should contact the relevant local authority or police services.

 

Counsellors have a duty to make sure that:

  • Safeguarding concerns are dealt with promptly, appropriately and reported in a secure and responsible way to all relevant agencies.
  • Steps are taken to escalate or alert those able to protect clients and/or others at risk from harm and minimise the risk of abuse.
  • Appropriate and proportionate measures are in place to protect from harm all those who work with them or come into contact with them.

The safeguarding issues counsellors may come across

There are many situations in safeguarding that pose ethical dilemmas for counsellors, including the appropriate management of risk in self-harm, addictions, children in need, and all forms of child abuse. Understanding what abuse and neglect might look like and how to recognise warning signs is an important aspect of safeguarding. Counsellors may encounter abuse in many different contexts and guises.

They may have to make judgements about a very wide range of situations, for example:

  • A client tells the counsellor that they suspect their partner is sexually abusing their daughter but begs the counsellor not to act on this concern, threatening to leave the therapy if the counsellor breaks their confidentiality.
  • A client with depression and an eating disorder tells the counsellor that they are finding it difficult not to hurt their children.
  • A client with learning disabilities discloses that one of the care staff shouts at them and has on several occasions hit the client when they have been upset.
  • A client who has been recently discharged from an in-patient psychiatric unit tells the counsellor that they were sexually assaulted by another patient during their time on the ward.
  • A client discloses fears that they will harm their elderly parent who has dementia and whose care is becoming increasingly stressful and fraught.

 

Confidentiality is considered to be one of the foundations of the therapeutic relationship. Clients may share/disclose personal information with a counsellor and they will feel more confident to do this if they are reassured that their personal information will be discussed and recorded in confidence. However, in exceptional circumstances, the need to safeguard clients or others from serious harm may require a counsellor to override their commitment to making their client’s wishes and confidentiality a primary concern. Counsellors may need to act in ways that will support any investigations or actions necessary to prevent serious harm to clients or others. In such circumstances, a counsellor should do their best to respect the parts of a client’s wishes or confidences that do not need to be overridden in order to prevent serious harm.

Counsellor reporting safeguarding concern

Where should counsellors go with a safeguarding concern?

Some concerns may be minor in nature but provide an opportunity for early intervention, for example advice to prevent a problem from escalating. Other safeguarding concerns may be more serious and need a response through multi-agency procedures and possible statutory intervention through regulators, the criminal justice system or civil courts.

Immediate concerns about abuse or neglect should be dealt with under local safeguarding procedures first. The person who raises a safeguarding concern within their own organisation should follow their organisation’s policy and procedures. This concern may result from something that you have seen, been told or heard. You don’t need to have all the facts to prove your concern, but you must have a reasonable belief that wrongdoing is either happening now, took place in the past, or is likely to happen in the future. Should you continue to have a well-reasoned concern which has not been taken up by the setting in which you are working, you should take responsibility for reporting your concern to the relevant authority. Speaking up on behalf of people in your care is an everyday part of your role. Just as raising genuine concerns represents good practice, doing nothing and failing to report concerns is unacceptable.

There may be occasions when there is a perceived conflict between the professional and moral duty of confidentiality and the need to disclose information that is considered to be in the public interest or for individual protection. If working in an organisation such as the NHS, a school, college or university, or within an organisation in the private or voluntary sector, you have a responsibility to formally inform and consult the designated safeguarding person in that setting at the earliest opportunity. If in private practice, unless you are certain that no action needs to be taken, it is good practice to consult your supervisor to discuss your concerns.

If you witness or suspect that there is a risk of immediate harm to a person in your care, you must act straight away to protect their safety. You should report your concerns to the appropriate person or authority immediately; this may be the police in some situations. Involvement of the police is indicated in incidents of suspected theft and common assault, including sexual assault, and assault causing actual bodily harm. However, the police may also be involved in other safety incidents such as wilful neglect of a person lacking capacity.

In all cases full notes should be taken of your decision, actions and reasons for them.

Counsellor following legislation

What legislation do counsellors have to follow in regard to safeguarding?

The Care Act 2014 sets out statutory responsibility for the integration of care and support between health and local authorities. NHS England and Clinical Commissioning Groups are working in partnership with local and neighbouring social care services. Local Authorities have statutory responsibility for safeguarding. In partnership with health they have a duty to promote wellbeing within local communities.

Working Together to Safeguard Children 2010 – the way that agencies and organisations should work together to carry out their duties and responsibilities under the 1989 Children Act and other legislation is set out in a document called ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’.

It sets out the responsibilities of all agencies in the protection of children, and is aimed at staff in organisations that are responsible for commissioning or providing services to:

  • Children, young people and adults who are parents/carers.
  • Organisations that have a particular responsibility for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children and young people.

 

The Mental Capacity Act 2005 – in order to protect those who lack capacity and to enable them to take part as much as possible in decisions that affect them, the following statutory principles apply:

  • You must always assume a person has capacity unless it is proved otherwise.
  • You must take all practicable steps to enable people to make their own decisions.
  • You must not assume incapacity simply because someone makes an unwise decision.
  • Always act, or decide, for a person without capacity in their best interests.
  • Carefully consider actions to ensure the least restrictive option is taken.

 

The Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards 2009 (DoLS), an amendment to the Mental Capacity Act 2005, provide a legal framework to protect those who lack the capacity to consent to the arrangements for their treatment or care, for example by reason of their dementia, learning disability or brain injury and where levels of restriction or restraint used in delivering that care for the purpose of protection from risk/harm are so extensive as to potentially be depriving the person of their liberty.

The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 – this Act, often referred to as the Whistleblowers Act, encourages staff to report suspected wrongdoing and protects those that do against being dismissed or suffering a detriment by their employers. It also gives protection to employees against suffering a detriment or retaliation from another employee for reporting suspected wrongdoing.

The following legislation is also relevant to counsellors in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults, but is not limited to:

GDPR and information sharing – the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018 introduced new elements to the data protection regime, superseding the Data Protection Act 1998. Practitioners must have due regard to the relevant data protection principles which allow them to share personal information. However, the GDPR and Data Protection Act 2018 do not prevent, or limit, the sharing of information for the purposes of keeping children and vulnerable adults safe.

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 and the Protection of Freedoms Bill – this Act was passed to help avoid harm, or risk of harm, by preventing people who are deemed unsuitable to work with children and vulnerable adults from gaining access to them through their work.

The Equality Act 2010 – this Act aims to protect people or groups of people who have one or more “protected characteristics”.

The Human Rights Act 1998 applies to anyone whose care or treatment is funded or provided by a public body. Section 6 requires all public authorities to act in ways that are compatible with human rights when making decisions.

The Terrorism Act 2000 makes it a criminal offence for a person to fail to disclose, without reasonable excuse, any information which they either know or believe might help prevent another person from carrying out an act of terrorism or might help in bringing a terrorist to justice in the UK.

Counsellor after taking safeguarding training

Why is safeguarding training important?

It is important that we all understand safeguarding, and know what to do should safeguarding concerns arise.

Safeguarding induction and training is essential for all counsellors appropriate to their role, including:

  • Information on types of harm, abuse and neglect.
  • How to spot abuse.
  • How to respond to concerns.
  • Who to report concerns to.

 

Training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained, and to the care and support needs of the individuals that they are working with. An example of appropriate safeguarding training includes Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults (SOVA) Level 2, designed for people who are working with vulnerable adults and teaches the skills needed to safeguard people who are at higher risk of abuse. Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults (SOVA) Level 3 is designed for people who are wanting more in-depth knowledge into safeguarding vulnerable adults.

Safeguarding Children Level 2 is designed for people who are working with children and teaches the skills needed to safeguard children who are at higher risk of abuse and is recommended for counsellors who have regular contact with families and children as part of their role.

Other training that is recommended for counsellors to provide the skills and knowledge for effective safeguarding include, but are not limited to:

  • Domestic Violence Awareness
  • Substance Misuse Awareness
  • Modern Slavery Awareness
  • Adolescent Mental Health Awareness
  • Mental Health Awareness
  • Self-Harming Awareness
  • Suicide Awareness
  • Mental Capacity Act

 

A counsellor’s supervisor should evaluate changes in understanding and confidence of a counsellor before and after training, assessing this:

  • Immediately after the training.
  • In regular long-term evaluations, for example as part of supervision sessions.
  • Annually, for example as part of the performance management/appraisal process.

 

Supervisors should provide feedback through supervision and appraisals, acknowledging how the counsellor has learned from their experience of identifying, reporting and managing safeguarding concerns.

Counsellor

How often should counsellors renew their safeguarding training?

Supervisors should assess a counsellor’s safeguarding knowledge annually, and run refresher training if needed. To help counsellors increase their confidence in managing safeguarding concerns, they should at a minimum refresh their safeguarding training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).

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