Safeguarding vulnerable people

The issue of child protection (and come to that the protection of any vulnerable group in our society) has increasingly come to the fore in recent years, with many scandals involving widespread abuse being unearthed, often taking years to come to light, and begging the question what sort of culture must have existed for such wide scale abuses to happen and why did it take so long to find out?

Worryingly, often the groups and individuals doing the abusing are those one might have least expected. While I have no doubt that vulnerable people have been wrongly exploited for time immemorial, as much as a result of power imbalance, it seems these days we are a lot more aware of what is happening that is of an unsavory nature and feel sufficiently empowered to challenge those doing the exploiting and who are responsible for protecting those who suffer. These days safeguarding has become a big thing and any organization dealing with vulnerable persons is expected to have relevant policies in place and to follow them. The down side is when common sense is sacrificed such that things become so legalistic that services are withdrawn and young people lose out. Unlike when I was young, when it was normal for children to roam the streets from dawn to dusk, these days they are more closely supervised.

For a long time, in my naivety, I had reckoned that serious abuse, sexual and otherwise, children and otherwise, and failure to safeguard, were rare exceptions. While still wanting to veer on the side of moderation, especially in the light of witch hunts that can and do take place that damage the innocent, I no longer believe we don’t face a serious issue. Even in the past week a number of related stories have been put in the public domain. On Facebook there has been a posting about reporting and dealing with older people abuse, something that is more prevalent than we would like to think. Then there are the allegations that former Prime Minister, Ted Heath, abused young boys. While nothing is proven, early signs are worrying. In one of my local homeless charities, housing vulnerable homeless men, there has been a breakdown when it comes to safeguarding the residents, and with serious consequences.

When I started community work, my son was very young, and I often found myself taking him to functions that I was involved with, these often involving vulnerable persons. This was done because it solved the child minding issue and it was a good way for him to be exposed to people from different backgrounds that he might otherwise not get to meet. It is for this reason I am sympathetic when parents bring their children to functions involving homeless folk. I should first state that the homeless are no more likely to abuse children than any other group. However, putting two vulnerable groups in close proximity, without adequate supervision, is inviting problems (as I have found, that happens even if nothing bad is done). I will always advise: should you choose to bring your children with you, don’t let them out of your sight.

One of the things I have picked up over the years is within the prisoner fraternity, those who abuse others, especially children, are at the bottom of the prison pecking order and are often separated for their safety. Ironically, those who deal hard drugs, which ruin the lives of many, are often high up in the order. This type of thinking happens outside of prison and I am all too aware of the sensitivities involved. When it comes to the outside world, my aim is to rehabilitate the abuser yet protect the potential victim from abuse, and this requires grace and wisdom. I recall when aged 15 my Christian youth leader spoke to us boys about some words of Jesus: “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones”. I didn’t know quite what he was getting at but all these years on I can say those words deeply affect my thinking.

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