‘The last thing I want is a hierarchy of vulnerability’

Adult protection could be coming out of the shadows, thanks in part to Action on Elder Abuse. Mithran Samuel speaks to its chief executive, Gary FitzGerald

Adult protection has struggled to gain equal billing with child protection, but the events of the past month could transform its standing and practice.

First, the long-awaited Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill promised a scheme to prevent possible abusers from working with vulnerable adults (Charities alarmed at vetting loophole, 9 March). Then, last week, Action on Elder Abuse (AEA) published a report on the handling of adult protection in nine local authorities.

Importantly, care services minister Liam Byrne backed two of its three recommendations – a national recording system on allegations and a performance indicator on cutting abuse (Byrne considers giving legal status to protection of vulnerable adults, 16 March). He also agreed to consider putting adult protection on the same statutory footing as child protection.

FitzGerald, Gary HPAEA chief executive Gary FitzGerald (pictured) says the impact of these decisions cannot be underestimated. The collection system “will give us real information that we can compare across authorities” while the indicator will focus councils’ efforts.

The conclusions of last week’s report were stark – for instance, that less than 1 per cent of allegations end in a prosecution – but FitzGerald says they did not surprise adult protection staff.
He argues that local government, the NHS and society need to be more aware of the problem. For example, he says at least one council is using fair access to care regulations, which are intended to govern eligibility for care, to ration access to adult protection services.

FitzGerald places adult protection in a much wider – and negative – context concerning the state of social care.

He joined AEA five years ago as deputy chief executive, becoming chief executive a year later, after a 22-year career in local government social services.

He says: “Since the Community Care Act 1990, I have witnessed a move away from responsive, quality, preventive care to crisis intervention work. There are standards below which you don’t go, and social care has nosedived well below that level. Part of what I’m doing today is about dealing with that fallout.”

But with last week’s report showing that nearly as much alleged abuse was carried out by family members as care staff, wider societal awareness is a key goal. “The point I’d like to get to is if there’s abuse at number 23 Acacia Avenue, the person at number 22 is willing to do something about it.”

His models for change are domestic violence and drink driving: “If you look back 10 years, the concept of domestic abuse was something you could almost boast about at work. We still have domestic abuse but now it’s much less acceptable.”

He is also aware that, although elder abuse may prick public consciences, the abuse of other vulnerable adults, notably people with learning difficulties, may not. “The last thing I would want is to create a hierarchy of vulnerability,” he says. “When we take action, we are taking action for all vulnerable adults.”

Besides the small matter of changing society, FitzGerald has more immediate concerns.

AEA is to back an amendment to the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill placing a duty on councils to inform direct payment users about the vetting and barring scheme, and offer to carry out checks for them.

AEA’s increasing position as a policy insider was reinforced last week when Byrne announced it would be one of his “dignity guardians” – a new group to monitor older people’s services.
FitzGerald concludes: “We need to make sure we are supportive but, where necessary, critical.”

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