Adult Vulnerability, the Care Act and the Police

04th Apr 2016

It was with a very heavy heart that I read the recent news reports concerning the conviction at Bristol Crown Court of a police constable and a police community support officer for offences of misconduct in public office.

Both officers received short prison sentences. They had already been sacked by their force and there is no doubt the personal ramifications for both will be extreme.

The convictions centred around the murder of Bijan Ebrahimi. He suffered with mental health issues and believed his life was at risk from individuals living near him.

He attempted to report his very real concerns to the constable who appears to have taken no action to understand the need, harm and risks to Mr Ebrahimi. Nor one presumes did the constable engage with other safeguarding partners to attempt to understand the issues or manage some type of partnership response to mitigate his concerns and the risks he faced. My sources inside Avon and Somerset police tell me Mr Ebrahimi was looked on as a persistent reporter and a problem that they just couldn’t solve.

Other staff and officers face disciplinary action concerning the case.

Any serving or ex police officer will tell you there are many individuals in their communities who constantly rub up against the front line of policing and there never seems to be a credible or available solution. The issues, problems if you like, just keep re-presenting themselves at the door of the local officers.

The truth is that policing never has been able to solve the world’s problems alone and never will. But they do know where the issues are; local knowledge is the bedrock of all policing and the public turn to the police service to report a myriad of issues.

I do not wish to comment further on this particular case, which has been widely reported on, but I do feel the wider issues concerning the evolving police role and adult vulnerability are worthy of comment.

The police service regularly finds itself as the agency receiving and having to manage concerns regarding need, harm and risk to both children and vulnerable adults. It is the service which is available 24 hours a day every day of the year to receive information concerning a myriad of issues, many of which contain significant risk.

The majority of police forces have processes and forms for reporting concerns regarding children and many are evolving the processes to cover vulnerable adults. The reporting of concerns regarding vulnerable adults to local authorities by the police is increasing dramatically and everyone involved sees this continuing.

This in itself is an enormous issue as adult social care budgets are under pressure like never before and a lot of the police concerns do not reach the threshold for a local authority investigation. This doesn’t mean the reporting is invalid; in fact, I would argue the opposite. The police service can identify need, harm and risk, but certainly cannot deliver the services and interventions to mitigate them.

If a massive amount of police reporting concerning adult vulnerability is not at threshold level then where is the fully coordinated range of services just waiting to pick up the tensions, stresses and challenges being reported hourly by the service concerning adults with vulnerabilities?

Section 42 of the The Care Act 2014 defines a vulnerable adult as:

An adult who:

  • has needs for care and support (whether or not the local authority is meeting any of those needs) and
  • is experiencing, or at risk of, abuse or neglect, and
  • 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.

And for the first time the Care Act 2014 placed the safeguarding of vulnerable adults on a statutory footing and in Section 6 identified the police together with other safeguarding partners as having a statutory duty to work with local authorities and others to safeguard adults.

In the past few years I have met, worked with and trained many front line police officers and discussed front line practice with them in relation to children, families and vulnerable adults. On the whole the officers have a good understanding of their responsibilities to children and have received some training concerning identifying the issues, which should trigger concerns regarding need, harm and risk.

Almost without exception, however, front line officers report having had no training concerning the identification of need harm and risk to vulnerable adults and importantly none which would support them in engaging with other safeguarding partners in a multi-agency approach to gain intervention or support services to mitigate the risks or address need and harm. Some forces have trained specialist investigators to deal with adult safeguarding and many use the skills of child protection investigators to operate in the similar partnership environment.

Many front line officers report a lack of confidence in their ability to gain partnership support and problem solve concerning adult vulnerability.

In an era of ever decreasing resources and increasing operational pressures it feels as if policing is facing a huge challenge in respect of the ways it approaches vulnerability in all its guises.

The only way the police service can respond effectively is through an integrated approach with its local authorities and other safeguarding partners. I know very well that the Early Offer of Help landscape for children and families is evolving well in many partnerships. Structured partnership approaches to adult vulnerability can be found but are extremely rare.

The uncomfortable truth underlined in the tragic murder of Bijan Ebrahimi is that society rightly has an expectation that vulnerable adults will be supported and protected by the system and that system includes the police service.

My experience is that front line officers are not best equipped at present to understand and identify the triggers for need, harm and risk in vulnerable adults. They are also not in a confident place where they feel they can deliver problem solving in partnership when individuals are botat the threshold level for safeguarding by the local authority.

My interactions over the last few years with front line officers suggests that they do see the issue as a core policing responsibility (which of course it is) and the vast majority want to try to make a difference. The problem appears to be they feel powerless to do so.

My plea to the police service nationally is to up the level of support to front line officers through training and leadership concerning their responsibilities and the opportunities for partnership working concerning vulnerable adults. Surely there is a corporate responsibility as well as a personal one of officers.

My concern is the partnership landscape for local front line officers is just not cohesive enough or coordinated for them to gain traction, solve problems in partnership and mitigate risk.

I make no apologies or excuses for substandard policing and never would when I was serving. I am somewhat concerned, however, that no other organisation appears to have been held to account for the failure to protect Bijan Ebrahimi. This could, of course, just be that they didn’t know about it.

I will await the outcome of the Safeguarding Adults Review, which must take place under Section 44 of the Care Act 2014, with interest.

Also, watch my recent broadcast on the Care Act and policing.