Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Safeguards don't always

Photo by Sebastian Fissore accessed via
This is the second of two posts on the topic of abuse and safeguards.

Safety and safeguards are rarely far from people's thoughts about supports for people who live with additional vulnerability.  Interest is heightened when dreadful things happen, be it at home, on the street, or in the arms of a service provider.  If the magnitude is sufficient, this can result in a jurisdiction putting formal arrangements in place to help protect people.

For example, as part of its Disability Act 2006 the Government of Victoria set up the Office of the Senior Practitioner to regulate the use of restrictive support practices so that people's rights are safeguarded. The Act also provided for a Community Visitors Program, where trained volunteers can inspect disability services without notice.

Also in 2006, the Government of Queensland established a Disability Services Act that included measures aimed at protecting people, including approval processes for service agencies and investigation arrangements.

In what was obviously a busy year for legislative action on safeguarding, 2006 saw the UK Government pass the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, as a response to something unspeakably evil, establishing the Independent Safeguarding Authority, whose role is to help ensure that unsuitable people are not unleashed on vulnerable people.   
In South Australia, there is currently a Bill before Parliament relating to Mandatory Reporting, designed to help ensure that anything approaching neglect, abuse or assault is quickly brought to the attention of the authorities who can then act to protect the person living with disability.

The above are several different examples of how jurisdictions can take formal steps to provide safeguards for people living with additional vulnerability.  Such measures are often taken as the king-hit (irony intended) response to people's concerns about vulnerability and safeguards, and are designed to give people confidence that matters are in hand.

Unfortunately, there are at least two problems with such approaches.  The first problem is that they are not necessarily successful at protecting people with the greatest vulnerability.  To illustrate this, I refer again to the UK, and the recent Panorama investigation (mentioned in the previous posting) that revealed abuse and assaults perpetrated by staff on residents living with disability, in a state-of-the-art, high-cost ‘specialist’ service supervised by registered professionals.  You can view the program in 4 parts here, but be warned that it includes scenes you may find deeply upsetting.

The investigation took place earlier this year. What is particularly depressing about the deplorable practice uncovered is that it took place despite the presence of the above-mentioned Independent Safeguarding Authority.  In short, the safeguarding authority didn't.
It gets worse. The UK also has the Care Quality Commission (CQC), whose role is to ensure that "people get better care".  This includes a a wide-ranging set of powers and duties, with the commitment that "if we think that people’s rights or safety are at risk, we will act quickly".  A senior staff member working at the service agency investigated by Panorama was so unsettled by the practices he saw that he contacted the CQC.  Unfortunately, the CQC failed its own commitment.  It did not act quickly, and in fact did not act at all, until Panorama shared their undercover research with several million people.

So what we have here is a situation where an approved service agency, working within a contemporary building and using professional staff, and designed to provide a specialist response to people with allegedly high needs, was responsible for a despicable catalogue of neglect, abuse and assault, and all this despite the presence of a range of formal legislative and regulatory safeguards.

The lesson from this is that formal safeguarding arrangements by themselves do not necessarily reduce the risk of vulnerable people being exploited.  

image by Banzai Creative
As a society it is of course important we continue exploring how we might best legislate and regulate to advance and uphold people's well being.  However, such measures are not a substitute for the work we all need to do to support people into ordinary valued lives.  This is because a good life is not achieved simply by reducing the chances of bad things happening.  If that is the main tactic, then that life will seem at best sterile and at worst empty.  Instead, the primary tactic must be how to increase the chances of good things happening in the person';s life, not just reducing the chances of bad things happening.

As mentioned in the previous posting, a starting point for this approach will be the deeply felt values about people living ordinary valued lives, and how this is then translated into expectations about how each citizen behaves, not just in terms of legislation, regulations, and specialist funding, but in terms of mainstream education, public transportation, buildings and spaces, ordinary employment, and neighbourhoods that are welcoming.

The better we support a person living with disability to take up their rightful place in the heart of our communities, the more likely it is that there will be natural safeguards present in that person's life - family, neighbours, acquaintances, friends, co-workers.  After all, these are sources of natural safeguards for any citizen, so why should it be any less so for a citizen living with disability.

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