Call for establishment of new Safeguarding Authority to reduce adult abuse

Report recommends ‘obligation to safeguard’ for public bodies, mandatory data sharing and greater awareness among professionals

A comprehensive new discussion document on adult safeguarding has recommended the establishment of a new national Authority – dedicated to preventing and reducing abuse, neglect and coercive control.

It has also recommended that public bodies hold a Statutory responsibility to prevent all forms of adult abuse, including sharing relevant data between agencies where known risks arise.

The report, Identifying RISKS – Sharing RESPONSIBILITIES: The Case for a Comprehensive Approach to Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults, presents the most detailed analysis and range of recommendations on safeguarding carried out to date in the country.

It was commissioned by Safeguarding Ireland and led by Dr. Michael Browne. The measures it recommends to keep adults safe from harm include:

  • Establishment of an independent cross-sectoral Safeguarding Authority – to promote, monitor, gather data, investigate, enforce, educate and train
  • New Safeguarding Legislation – which places an obligation on State bodies and organisations to take steps to prevent and reduce abuse
  • Removal of data sharing barriers – onus placed on agencies to share relevant information when risk is identified
  • Greater professional and public awareness – on supporting decision-making, empowering people with reduced capacity, using independent advocacy, identifying risk and when and how to report concerns.

Responding to the report findings Safeguarding Ireland Chairperson Patricia Rickard-Clarke said: “The discussion paper makes clear that there is a very significant lack of scope and integration in Ireland’s current safeguarding response.

“Our current measures are too narrowly focused on health and social care and lie mainly among a small number of organisations who have limits to their powers (the HSE Safeguarding Service, HIQA, the Mental Health Commission and An Garda).

“A major change of culture is needed towards a broader approach that is underpinned by legislation, policies and structures which hold individuals and organisations accountable for crimes of abuse, or also for not taking identified steps to prevent abuse.”

A central recommendation in Identifying RISKS – Sharing RESPONSIBILITIES is the establishment of an independent National Adult Safeguarding Authority with overarching responsibility for:

  • Promotion of standards
  • Overall reporting and data collection
  • Investigation of abuse allegations
  • Enforcement of safeguarding laws
  • Provision of independent advocacy
  • Education and training
  • Public and professional awareness.

The document recommends that the Safeguarding Authority sit under the Department of Justice, together with involvement of the Departments of Health; Social Protection; Housing; Finance and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth Affairs.

Ms Rickard-Clarke said safeguarding needs to be more integrated across financial, housing, homelessness and justice services and policies – with safeguarding responsibilities placed on all relevant public bodies, and on private organisations.

“There needs to be a Statutory obligation on State bodies to do more than respond to crises. They also need to have accountability to take steps which prevent adult abuse and uphold people’s rights.

“A critical issue highlighted in the paper is the need for significant changes in relation to information sharing between individuals and agencies, whereby organisations should be accountable to share relevant data when there are safeguarding concerns.”

More than 10,000 cases of alleged abuse are reported to the HSE Safeguarding and Protection Teams each year (although the actual figure including what is not reported, or reported to other authorities is much higher).

The high level of under-reporting is indicated by RED C research commissioned by Safeguarding Ireland in 2020 which found that 12% of all adults reported having experienced adult abuse in the previous six months, and one third of adults reported ever having experienced abuse. International research suggests that up to 10% of adults may experience financial abuse, which is understood to be particularly prone to underreporting.

Considering the prevalence of abuse and narrow focus of the current response, the report proposes major change and warns that Ireland’s current approach to safeguarding is ‘deeply flawed and appears incapable of providing safe and humane care and support for all adults at risk’.

The discussion document states:

“The absence of adequate and appropriate legislative foundations weakens effective actions at the implementation levels, allows for confusion and over-caution in safeguarding response decisions and results in loopholes for people who wish to exploit others, or who hope to avoid responsibility for their negligent approach to safeguarding.

“A culture that is dismissive of certain forms of abuse, that trivialises others and that plays down the human and legal rights of adults at risk, persists in Ireland. There is a need for an effective dismantling of this culture. The fragmented and specialised remits of various agencies limits their potential.”

In conclusion Ms Rickard-Clarke acknowledged that over the last 20 years, attempts have been made to combat adult abuse, including the introduction of the HSE Safeguarding Service, regulation of some health and social care services, more robust mental health legislation, initiatives in the banking sector – and particularly the soon to be commenced Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015.

However, she said that these responses primarily place adult safeguarding within the health and social care environment and now is the time for a much wider response and accountability.

In conclusion she said there is overwhelming public support for Government action and progress on these issues: “A Safeguarding Ireland commissioned survey in 2020, carried out by RED C, found that 91% of people then favoured stronger safeguarding laws. And 85% supported the setting up of a national body that is dedicated to safeguarding and comprehensively addressing abuse.”

The full report can be downloaded at www.safeguardingireland.org

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