In this article
The protection of the most vulnerable people in society is a core policing value. The police have a primary responsibility to protect life, prevent crime and bring offenders to justice. The police play a critical part in safeguarding adults and children both on the frontline and at a strategic level as statutory partners on safeguarding adults and children’s boards.
What is safeguarding?
Policing has a crucial role to play in the identification, support and safeguarding of children and adults who are at risk of harm. Safeguarding adults and children is an integral part of policing. Safeguarding means protecting people from harm including physical, emotional, sexual and financial harm and neglect. Police officers have a duty to recognise the signs and symptoms of abuse and to act on any concerns. Duties to safeguard the public are required by professional regulators and service regulators and are supported by law.
Safeguarding adults at risk means protecting their right to live in safety and free from abuse and neglect.
Adults at risk means anyone aged 18 or over who:
- Has needs for care and support.
- Is experiencing, or is at risk of, abuse or neglect.
- As a result of those care and support needs, is unable to protect themselves from either the risk of or the experience of abuse or neglect.
Children means anyone aged under 18 years, or under 25 years if they have special educational needs or disability (SEND).
Safeguarding children and young people’s welfare are defined in ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ as:
- Protecting children from maltreatment.
- Preventing impairment of children’s health or development.
- Ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care.
- Taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.
Safeguarding aims to balance the right to be safe with the right of the individual to make informed choices and to have their wellbeing promoted at all times.
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.
- 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?
Individuals encountered by police officers can be vulnerable and their vulnerability may mean their interests need protection. It is possible that a person’s decision-making capacity may be subject to change depending on the circumstances being experienced at the time, such as illness, injury or being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, and various other factors. Fluctuation of capacity means that a person’s ability to understand information, retain that information and make an informed decision can come and go which can make them more vulnerable.
Abuse and neglect can occur anywhere to anyone; however, there are risk factors that can make a person more vulnerable to abuse.
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 frail.
- Have experienced a lack of access to health and social services or high-quality information.
Any 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:
- Socioeconomic factors such as poverty, poor housing and deprivation.
- Child factors, for example disabled children are more vulnerable to abuse or neglect.
- 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.
These lists are not exhaustive, and other people might also be considered to be adults 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, also including 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).
- 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, withholding medication, and inadequate nutrition and heating.
- Discriminatory abuse – including racist and sexist abuse 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 police officers 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.
Police officers 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. Safeguarding concerns vary according to the nature of harm, the circumstances it arose in and the people concerned.
Police officers often see members of the public in times of distress and difficulty. It is likely that you may come into contact with someone who is at risk or suffering from abuse or neglect. The abuse or neglect can be deliberate, or the result of ignorance. Recognising abuse or neglect is crucial.
Indicators might include, but are not limited to:
- Physical signs such as hand-slap marks, bruising in unusual areas, bruised eyes, bite marks and other injuries.
- The story provided by the adult might be inconsistent with any injuries.
- Refusal by others to allow the individual into further care or to change environment.
- Poor physical care and inadequate hygiene, inappropriate dress.
- Deliberate self-harm including suicide attempts.
- Drugs and /or alcohol misuse.
- Be the result of deliberate intent, or be unintentional, through negligence or ignorance.
- Be a single act or repeated acts.
- Cause harm temporarily or over a period of time.
- Be an act of neglect or an omission to act.
- Occur through deliberate targeting/grooming.
The roles and responsibilities of a police officer in regard to safeguarding
When attending an incident, attending officers should always identify and implement any safeguarding measures that need to be put in place immediately.
Under the Children Act (1989), and the Care Act (2014), the police service, working with other agencies such as local authority adults and/or children’s social care services, health services and education services, is responsible for making enquiries to safeguard and secure the welfare of any child or vulnerable adult within their area who is suffering or who is likely to suffer significant harm.
Police officers should assess the level of risk and decide whether immediate action is required to remove the risk of harm. They should use professional curiosity to explore and understand the full circumstances of the matter with which they are dealing and consider the use of protective orders and/or other safeguarding activities to prevent criminal behaviour by suspects.
The police are duty-bound to refer to the local authority those adults and/or children in need whom they find in the course of their work. Should officers and police staff feel that a referral is required due to the seriousness of an individual’s situation, they should do so in line with local procedures.
The police have a duty to investigate crime and bring offenders to justice. It may not always be in the public interest to prosecute an offender, especially if the alleged offender is very young, has a learning disability, is the child’s parent or the case involves consensual sexual activity among children of a similar age.
Police officers have a duty to ensure 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 individuals and/or other adults 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 for them, or with them, or come into contact with them.
Where the vulnerable adult or child is at high risk of immediate serious harm or death, police officers must immediately consider how to reduce this risk, whilst having regard for the wishes and capacity of the vulnerable adult/child.
Police officers should always record findings and risk management activity on local intelligence or crime/incident recording systems and report them to the local designated safeguarding lead.
The safeguarding issues police officers may come across
Force control room (FCR) staff help to identify vulnerable people from the information received when members of the public call for help; this can identify possible safeguarding issues. FCR staff may refer calls involving domestic violence or children in environments where drug and alcohol abuse is suspected or known to the appropriate service.
Issues that police officers may come across include, but are not limited to:
Child sexual exploitation – this is a form of abuse involving children and young people under the age of 18 where the young person is encouraged to perform sexual activities in exchange for ‘something’ (for example, food, accommodation and money). It often involves using technology such as mobile phones or the internet and can take the form of organised crime.
Domestic violence – many people think that domestic abuse is about intimate partners, or abuse of women by men. But it may also be caused by wider family members, or committed by women towards men and in same-sex relationships.
Modern slavery – this encompasses slavery, human trafficking, forced labour and servitude. Traffickers and perpetrators use whatever means they have at their disposal to coerce, deceive and force individuals into a life of abuse, servitude and inhumane treatment. Any consent victims have given to their treatment will be irrelevant where they have been coerced, deceived or provided with payment or benefit to achieve that consent. A large number of active organised crime groups are involved in modern slavery, but it is also committed by individual opportunistic perpetrators.
Financial or economic abuse – this includes theft; fraud; scamming; coercion in relation to an adult’s financial affairs or arrangements, including in connection with wills, property, inheritance or financial transactions; or the misuse or misappropriation of possessions or benefits. Examples include re-mortgaging or sale of the person’s property without knowledge, consent or under coercion; misappropriating money or valuables; forcing or coercing changes to a will and testament; and preventing access to money, property, possessions or inheritance.
Abuse against older persons – breach of trust implies reliance on the integrity of a person when providing a service or carrying out a task entrusted to them. Betrayal of trust or abuse of authority in the context of older people could therefore include a wide range of service providers, such as minibus drivers, cleaners, council contractors, carers or tradespeople.
Cuckooing – this is where criminal gangs target the homes of vulnerable people and adults with care and support needs, to be used for drug dealing, and the victims are often left with no choice but to cooperate.
Other issues can include:
- Physical or sexual assault or rape
- Psychological abuse or hate crime
- Wilful neglect
- Unlawful imprisonment
- Theft and fraud
- Gang and youth violence, county lines, cuckooing
- Trafficking adults and/or children
- Drugs and/or alcohol abuse
- Domestic abuse of adults and/or children
- Elder abuse
- Radicalisation and extremism
These lists are not exhaustive.
Where should police officers go with a safeguarding concern?
Police officers must take appropriate action when they have concerns about the safety or wellbeing of children or vulnerable adults. 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. Police officers should always follow the procedures laid down in their individual force’s Safeguarding policy, and each force will have designated safeguarding leads to whom all issues should be reported.
In the processes for raising concerns, gathering information, investigation and concluding a safeguarding alert in relation to vulnerable children and/or adults who are at risk, the police take primacy of the criminal investigation and the local authority are the lead on safeguarding procedures; however, this is a shared responsibility, and should police attend an incident first, they will then have to address safeguarding initially.
The local authority and police work together to ensure that the vulnerable child and/or adult is protected. Where there is a significant risk to a vulnerable child and/or adult, their safety and welfare must take precedence over the police investigation.
Some abuse may not amount to a crime, and may be perpetrated as a result of ignorance, or poor or unsatisfactory professional practice. This may still require an initial police investigation to identify the cause, and will always necessitate referral to the local authority, in accordance with the local authority’s Safeguarding Vulnerable Children and/or Adults Guidance.
What legislation do police officers have to follow in regard to safeguarding?
Section 325 to 327B of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (CJA) established multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA) in each of the 42 criminal justice areas of England and Wales. These arrangements are designed to protect the public, including victims of crime, from serious harm by sexual or violent and other dangerous offenders. MAPPA requires criminal justice agencies and other bodies to work together in partnership with these offenders.
The introduction to the MAPPA Guidance details legislation and statutory responsibilities relevant to managing sexual, violent and other dangerous offenders. This is reinforced by the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) which incorporates Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Under these Articles, the police and other public authorities have a duty of care to the public.
Police officers have an emergency power under Section 46 of the Children Act 1989 which allows any police officer to protect a child who is reasonably believed to be at risk of significant harm.
Section 46 states: “where a constable has reasonable cause to believe a child would otherwise be likely to suffer significant harm, he/she may:
- Remove the child to suitable accommodation and keep him/her there; or
- Take such steps as are reasonable to ensure that the child’s removal from any hospital, or other place, in which he/she is then being accommodated is prevented.”
Where a police officer exercises the above power, the child is deemed to be under police protection.
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 the police in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults:
- Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974
- Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974
- Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975
- Police Act 1997
- Protection of Children Act 1999
- Care Act 2014
- Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
- Human Rights Act 1998 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
- Sexual Offences Act 2003
- Children Act 2004
- Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006
- Mental Capacity Act 2005
- The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015
- Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards 2009
- Equality Act 2010
- Protection of Freedoms Act 2012
- Modern Slavery Act 2015
- Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015
- Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019
- GDPR and Data Protection Act 2018
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 police staff 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 public that they are working with. An example of appropriate safeguarding training includes Safeguarding Children Level 2, designed for people who are working with children and teaches the skills needed to safeguard children who are at higher risk of abuse, and 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.
Other training that is recommended for police officers to provide the skills and knowledge for effective safeguarding include, but are not limited to:
- Paediatric First Aid Training
- Managing Behaviour that Challenges
- Child Neglect Awareness
- Domestic Violence Awareness
- Substance Misuse Awareness
- FGM Awareness
- Child Sexual Exploitation
- Modern Slavery Awareness
- Adolescent Mental Health Awareness
Senior police officers should evaluate changes in understanding and confidence of officers in their charge 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.
Senior police officers should provide feedback through supervision and appraisals, acknowledging how the officers have learned from their experience of identifying, reporting and managing safeguarding concerns.
How often should police officers renew their safeguarding training?
Senior police officers should assess their officers’ safeguarding knowledge annually, and run refresher training if needed. To help police officers 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).