A new report shows the majority of social workers back the idea of court-imposed removal orders to protect an adult from abuse and Banning Orders against those who pose a risk.
The study also said existing safeguarding statistics are under-reporting safeguarding activities and current levels of abuse relating to vulnerable adults and argued that new laws were needed to protect those who can't protect themselves.
The 'Falling Through the Cracks' report, published today, is calling for major reforms of Ireland’s adult safeguarding laws to better protect adults who are vulnerable to abuse. The researchers, Dr Sarah Connolly and Dr Marita O'Brien, interviewed social workers across the country, who said they feel ill-equipped to deal with safeguarding cases.
The Adult Safeguarding Bill 2017 was introduced by Senator Colette Kelleher - who commissioned the report - in the Seanad in April 2017, proposing mandatory reporting and the establishment of a National Adult Safeguarding Authority. However, the new report looks at how the absence of adult safeguarding legislation may result in adults "falling through the cracks" within the current safeguarding system.
The study involved 17 interviews with Social Workers, Alzheimer Society of Ireland Dementia Advisors and a SAGE Regional Advocacy Coordinator, two in-depth focus groups with social workers and an online survey of 116 social workers.
It highlighted a number of themes represented in sample cases, including: a young man prevented by his parents from day and respite support, meaning he becomes a ward of court so he can access those services; a widowed pensioner under the coercive control of another adult who refuses to cooperate with services on her behalf; a man with serious brain injury being neglected while in the care of the private nursing home; an adult with Down Syndrome whose care is transferred by their parents to other relatives; and a young man with a traumatic brain injury whose behaviour is posing risk to his siblings and where there are safeguarding concerns in relation to him from his father.
Issues include access to information and GDPR complications, the risk of a vulnerable person being exploited by others, a lack of powers on behalf of services to intervene, and how to deal with others who are being uncooperative when it come to someone's care.
According to the report:
"The safeguarding of adults at risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation by others is often complex.The majority of citizens in Ireland can act to protect themselves when faced with these situations however, there are some who find it more difficult. Safeguarding means putting measures in place to promote and protect people’s human rights, their health and wellbeing, and empowering people to protect themselves."
It said there were four key areas that needed to be addressed - adults who can't and are denied the chance to express their will and preference; coercive control; failure to provide any health and social care services; and poor information sharing, with GDPR highlighted as "a significant barrier to effective safeguarding".
According to the report, "there is a considerable lack of consistency in practice, in terms of available resources, roles and responsibilities and interagency working across HSE Safeguarding and Protection Social Work teams", while "referral process for adult safeguarding was described by participants as being in disarray".It also said discharge from hospital to community and other transition points was problematic, "as often there was ambiguity and a lack of clarity in relation to who should follow-up on actions where there were adults at risk", while the absence of an appeals or review process when there were refusals to accept a referral was "a cause for concern".
Another shortcoming was criminal legislation that requires the person who has been abused to give a statement of complaint to Gardaí, and concerns that existing safeguarding statistics are under-reporting safeguarding activities and current levels of abuse. It said Ward of Court legislation can offer protection, but it is generally used as a last resort.
As for the survey of social workers and proposed changes:
- 91% said a duty to report (with consent or where the person doesn't have decision-making capacity) incidents of abuse/neglect would be helpful or very helpful;
- 61% said mandatory reporting regardless of whether consent to report is given by the adult at risk would be helpful or very helpful'
- 90% said a duty to provide assistance would be helpful or very helpful;
- 92% said a duty on gardai, banks and others to cooperate with inquiries would be helpful or very helpful;
- 88% backed powers to obtain information, including GP reports;
- 79% backed the ability to apply to court for an assessment order;
- 75% supported the right to apply to court for a removal order to protect an adult from abuse.
- 88% backed the idea of Banning Orders against a person who poses a risk.
According to the report: "Safeguarding is not a one size fits all process, that can be achieved in an authoritarian way.
"Legislation should not be a panacea for good practices in safeguarding adults at risk of harm and any legislative powers introduced should be used sparingly and appropriately.
Senator Kelleher said: “This research shows very clearly that the way GDPR is being interpreted by agencies involved in adult safeguarding often lacks basic common sense. For example, a person may be supported by the Mental Health Service, but the Service cannot share information on the person’s diagnosis, making it extremely difficult for social workers to carry out assessments.
“Agencies or service providers can only use the initials of persons’ names when reporting safeguarding incidents, which poses significant barriers to pattern-forming assessments, where there may be ongoing concerns or multiple incidents relating to one person.
“These rigid and overly cautious interpretations of GDPR are hampering effective information-sharing by the diverse agencies and individuals involved in adult safeguarding, to the detriment of people at risk. To provide clarity for those involved in adult safeguarding, I am calling on the Data Protection Commissioner to clarify what qualifies as good practice in relation to information-sharing and GDPR. This would enable those working in safeguarding to better protect adults who are vulnerable to harm and abuse.”