Public's help needed to protect 'adults at risk'

THE authorities in Scotland can do a great deal to protect the welfare of children. There are laws, arms of government, procedures, institutions and plenty of charities out there which exist to look after the country's young people and make sure they don't fall through the cracks.

But where are the safeguards for the country's vulnerable adults? Scotland, like any country, has an awful lot of people of all ages who are at risk in some way, and many of those protection measures in place for children just don't exist as far as adults are concerned.

Which is where the Adult Support and Protection (Scotland) Act of 2007 came in. Designed specifically to offer a measure of protection for adults at risk, the new Act made provisions for an adult protection committee, or APC, in every one of Scotland's council areas. And the chair of the Argyll and Bute APC, Bill Brackenridge, visited Rothesay this week to shed some light on what the group does – and how it would like the public to help.

Mr Brackenridge is also the chair of the Argyll and Bute community health partnership (CHP) – the local division of NHS Highland. But his APC hat is an entirely separate one. And after the publication recently of his first biennial report to the Scottish Government, he is keen to raise the profile of the committee and its work.

Our first question is a simple one: what is an 'adult at risk'?

"It could be anyone," he says. "It could be someone being physically abused; it could be you, regularly coming into work with a black eye because your partner is hitting you at home.

"It could be your elderly mother, at risk because you're taking 20 out of her handbag every week without her knowing, or trying to persuade her to sell her house for your own benefit.

"Or it could be – and this was a genuine case – an elderly woman living in a nice house just outside Glasgow who began to get regular visits from a much younger man who, it turned out, wanted to marry her so he could sell her home and pocket the profits.

"There has been legislation in place to protect the welfare of children for many years. This legislation is an attempt to do the same for adults.

"But the powers which exist for adult protection are much weaker. We can't just take an adult into care; we have to persuade the victim to do it themselves.

"I want the 100,000 people in Argyll and Bute to have their eyes and ears open, looking for adults at risk."

The most common type of adult at risk at present is a person who self-harms - that makes up two out of every five referrals to the Argyll and Bute APC at present. How that compares with the rest of Scotland is not entirely clear; there is, so far, no national data set to enable APCs in different areas to compare information.

But the Argyll and Bute APC dealt with 124 referrals in the whole of 2009-10 (30 of those in Bute and Cowal – double the number in 2008-9), while committees in some other areas dealt with 40 a month. Even taking into account the population comparison, that's a big difference.

"The vast majority of our referrals come through Strathclyde Police," Mr Brackenridge says, "although that's probably because they see people when they are manifestly at risk.

"We also get referrals from social work, from the health service, from carers and from some family members. But there's a whole raft of people out there who can see someone at risk of harm.

"Argyll and Bute has one full time adult protection manager, in Lochgilphead, and social workers in each of the council's four geographical sub-divisions who lead on adult protection.

"We've trained approximately six hundred people in the NHS, Strathclyde Police and the council to know what to do when a case gets referred to them."

So far, so sensible and straightforward. But given the tendency of many Scots, and Brits, towards stubborn, even bloody-minded, self-reliance, isn't there a danger that this network of professionals might be seen as a group of interfering busybodies looking for trouble where none exists?

"The whole point of the legislation is aimed at getting over the fear of interference," Mr Brackenridge says.

"In years gone by, if you were a vulnerable adult your neighbours would have looked out for you. We no longer live in the kind of society where that sort of support can be counted on, and the new legislation aims to tackle that.

"For example, if someone notices that you regularly have a black eye and thinks your wife might be hitting you, they might be reluctant to inform the authorities because they think there's a danger they might get into trouble from you or your wife. But they can pass on their concerns completely anonymously.

"It's important to remember that we all do have a duty of care to others. At one time we fulfilled that by simply being kind and helpful; that's not how society operates these days, so now we have legislation which gives society the responsibility of intervening in that particular way. We want people to be spotted before they've fallen over."

The 'adult at risk', whoever he or she might be, need not already be in the adult care system. In fact, if you think about it, it's probably likely that most adults within that care system are already receiving the support they need.

The new legislation seems to be aimed more at giving help, in a 'right here, right now' sense, to those who are not already part of a support network. But the APC cannot insist on that protection being given, however much it might think it is needed.

"If you don't want protection, you can tell everybody to go away," Mr Brackenridge continues.

"Of course, that is an issue in itself, because the person you need protection from may try to persuade you not to accept any support.

"But some people are delighted to be found, perhaps because they didn't realise they needed help; others simply have not been prepared to accept previously that support is required."

And yet, while the measures laid down in the 2007 Act might not go as far as some professionals might like, one thing seems clear: the situation now is better than when there were no safeguards for vulnerable adults at all.

"On its own, the legislation which is now in place doesn't save a single person," Mr Brackenridge adds.

"The only way people get the benefit of it is from the professionals being given a chance to help.

"The legislation is never going to affect as many people as the laws on child protection, but if it makes sure that that elderly lady doesn't marry the guy who's after her money, or protects you from getting a black eye from your wife, then the legislation will have done its job, and we on the committee will have done ours."