Vital role of ‘appropriate adult’ to help vulnerable people

Social workers have much to offer and to gain from becoming an appropriate adult to help vulnerable people in criminal investigations. Gordon Carson looks at the role

Social workers have much to offer and to gain from becoming an appropriate adult to help vulnerable people in criminal investigations. Gordon Carson looks at the role

Appropriate Adult, ITV’s drama on the Fred West case broadcast in September 2011, brought public exposure to an area of the criminal justice system that normally operates very much in the background.

When the Gloucester builder was arrested and taken into custody in February 1994, Janet Leach was at home making her children’s tea. But as a volunteer appropriate adult, Leach – who was on an access course which, when completed, would enable her to be a social worker – was called in by police to assist West, and she would subsequently be viewed by him as his confidante.

The Fred West case was an extreme example of a person who might require the help of an appropriate adult. Many involve fairly basic criminal acts, such as vandalism, and the role is most often fulfilled by a member of the family or carer of an alleged offender, says Lis Pritchard, chief executive of umbrella body National Appropriate Adult Network.

However, social workers and student social workers do sometimes carry out the role, either voluntarily or as part of their job in areas where statutory services directly run the appropriate adult scheme.

The role was introduced in England and Wales by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984 (there is separate legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland). The aim is to safeguard the rights and welfare of young people and vulnerable adults in police custody, and ensure they know what is happening to them and why.

The definition of vulnerable adult covers anyone who is or appears to the police custody officer to be younger than 17, people with mental health difficulties, people with a learning disability and those who have trouble communicating and understanding.

The appropriate adult should support and advise a young person or vulnerable adult in police custody and facilitate communication between them and the police. However, they do not give legal advice and are not covered by legal privilege, so they can be questioned as a witness by the police, or in court, about what they discuss with people in custody.

Local authorities, through their youth offending teams, have a duty to ensure that an appropriate adult is provided for under-17s. However, there is no equivalent duty placed on any statutory agency to ensure appropriate adults are provided for vulnerable adults.

Pritchard says one of the challenges when acting as an appropriate adult is to be clear about what the role is and its limitations.

“It’s about ensuring there’s good communication and the interests of the person in custody are protected,” she says. “But it’s not an advocacy or social work role. Social workers can be caught between being there as a social worker or as an appropriate adult.”

Nonetheless, she says social workers can be the most suitable appropriate adults in cases involving their own clients, particularly where it is important to understand the communication problems experienced by some vulnerable adults, such as those with learning disabilities.

Michael Isles, a qualified social worker and spokesperson for the College of Social Work, says communications skills are among the key benefits social workers can bring to the appropriate adult role.

“Social workers are required to be expert communicators and very often understand the personal and professional relationship which is inherent in the relationship with clients, which is a power relationship,” says Isles, who used to act as an appropriate adult and is also managing director of Thought Creative, a training business operating in the West of England and South Wales.

“They will have a non-prejudicial, rounded understanding of the nature of mental vulnerability. You would hope that volunteer appropriate adults have extensive training but there are benefits to having been trained in mental health and understanding, for example, that people with bipolar disorder can say things [they don’t mean] very easily.”

Isles says acting as an appropriate adult can also provide benefits for social workers’ practice, particularly in helping them to become assertive. “You have to be clear with the police about getting access to a person’s custody record and ensure they get things like meal breaks,” he says. “You also need to be able to complain if the correct procedures aren’t being followed.”

Ruth Cartwright, manager for England at the British Association of Social Workers, used to act as an appropriate adult and says the role can give social workers a “greater insight into certain aspects of the criminal justice system”, including the difficulties faced by police in identifying vulnerable adults. “It can be good for collaborative working with the police and it can also be a way for social workers to help them,” she says.

Pritchard wonders, though, whether acting as appropriate adults as part of their day job is the best use of social workers’ time in an era of funding cuts and increasing pressure on time and resources: “A big issue is the appropriateness of social workers doing this role when they may have to be in a police station for hours.”

“You are not there to be a friend”

As head of Bracknell Forest Council’s emergency duty service, Abbie Murr is setting up an appropriate adult service covering the six unitary local authorities across Berkshire.

The scheme covers young people and vulnerable adults in custody, and the aim is to build up to a team of 30 next year.

The appropriate adults include full-time social workers and volunteers – including social work and law students – and Murr also fulfils the role herself, with personal experience of hundreds of cases.

Murr says the most important issue for social workers is to understand the boundaries of the appropriate adult role. “You are not there to be a friend to the young person or adult,” she points out.

“If a person says they sexually abused a child, you have to remind them that you told them at the start that, if they made a disclosure to you, you can’t represent them and you would have to disclose it to the police and could become a witness.”

Acting as an appropriate adult has given Murr a greater understanding of the criminal justice system. Common cases include children, sometimes as young as 10, causing criminal damage, and alleged inappropriate sexual advances by people with learning disabilities.

The details of some of the cases, such as murder or the rape of a child, can be upsetting, she admits, “but you have to remain professional”.

“You have to compartmentalise things, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to do it,” adds Murr. “That’s where it can be difficult for volunteers.”

Helping suspect understand

A man was taken into police custody on suspicion of rape. The custody sergeant thought there were issues with his behaviour, but the police started the interview without the presence of the appropriate adult. They felt the suspect was being evasive.

However, when Michael Isles, a qualified social worker and appropriate adult, was eventually brought in, he realised the suspect didn’t understand what was happening.

The man had been found, dishevelled, near the scene of the rape and hadn’t been able to account for his movements. He had declined his right to a solicitor.

But, speaking to the suspect alone and as an independent party, Isles managed to convince him to accept legal representation.

The suspect was found not guilty.

➔ More information on appropriate adults

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This article is published in the 20 October 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “An appropriate response”

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