What to do if you suspect abuse in vulnerable adults

When a person chooses to abuse another person, they tend to behave in ways that will prevent them from being detected or caught. This is one of the reasons why perpetrators of abuse may target vulnerable adults.

Vulnerable adults or ‘at risk individuals’ are people over the age of 18 who may be unable to care for themselves or protect themselves against harm or exploitation. They may be unable or less likely to report abuse, while some may not even realise that they’re being abused.

Safeguarding vulnerable adults from abuse is everyone’s responsibility, so it’s vital to act if you suspect something’s wrong.

How to spot signs of adult abuse

It can be very difficult to identify when an adult is being abused. This is because there are many different methods a perpetrator might use to abuse a vulnerable adult. What’s more, some adults may be able to hide the signs from the people they’re closest to out of fear, shame or embarrassment. But, there may be some subtle changes in their behaviour or appearance you could look out for, including:

  • Physical injuries, such as bruises, scald marks and fractures that have no explanation
  • The same injuries happening more than once
  • Signs of sexual abuse such as pain sitting or walking, or having torn or bloody underwear
  • Signs of fear and not wanting to be left by themselves
  • Becoming withdrawn, tearful or anxious
  • Becoming aggressive or angry for no obvious reason
  • They’re hungry, dehydrated or dirty
  • Self-harming
  • Communicating differently or not communicating at all
  • Changes in their needs, such as needing different types or levels of care
  • Changes in their skills, such as self-care or continence management
  • Behaving differently with different staff or in different environments
  • Having less money than usual or getting into debt
  • Their possessions going missing

What to do if you suspect abuse

A person being abused may try to explain away their injuries, change in mood or lack of money. But if you’re worried about them, trust your instincts and raise your concerns with the appropriate authorities. Waiting to report abuse could allow it to continue or escalate.

If you can, start by having a private chat with the person you’re concerned about. It may not be an easy conversation to have, so here are a few tips to help you:

  • Let the person know that you’ve noticed a change in them and ask if they’re okay. It may help to give concrete examples such as that they’ve lost weight, that they seem anxious or that you’ve noticed they have less money than usual.
  • When they respond, listen to them without interrupting. Let them talk as much as they want and stay calm, even if what they’re saying is upsetting to hear.
  • You should note that they may be reluctant to talk at first, so it’s important to be patient. It can be hard for a person to admit what’s happening to them, and they may be worried about making the abuse worse. It’s possible that they’re being threatened or coerced into silence.
  • Be clear that what’s happening to them is wrong and it’s not their fault, and that they have a right to feel safe.
  • During your chat, refrain from promising that you won’t tell anyone what’s been said. If the person is being abused or neglected, it’s likely that you’ll need to tell someone else in order to get help.
  • Ask them what they would like you to do and let them have some time to think about it. Unless, of course, you feel they’re in immediate danger and you need to act straight away.

How to report adult abuse

If you’re concerned about the vulnerable adult’s immediate health and safety or if you think a crime has been committed, you should contact the police. They can be contacted on 999 for an emergency and 101 for non-emergencies.

You could also talk through your concerns in confidence with the person’s GP, particularly if the vulnerable adult hasn’t yet received formal care or support. Every GP surgery will have safeguarding procedures to follow when an allegation or suspicion of abuse is reported. Use the term ‘safeguarding concern’ to make sure these procedures are followed.

You can raise all other concerns with the adult safeguarding team (also known as an adult protection team) of the local authority in which the vulnerable adult is living. Check the local authority’s website or phone them for details.

What to do if you’re unhappy with how your concerns are being addressed

The authorities should always take your concerns seriously and deal with them quickly. But, if you’re not happy with the speed of the response or with the outcome itself, you can make a formal complaint to the same local authority. A community care solicitor may be able to advise you on the best course of action and/or act as liaison if you need to take the matter further.

You may also want to register your concerns with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) who are the independent regulator of health and social care services in England. Their focus is on the service as a whole but they will take individual complaints into account when inspecting that service.

If you’re concerned about a vulnerable adult, act. Waiting for the person to ask for help or hoping that it will stop on its own could mean they continue to suffer. As a first point of action, why not contact the specialist adult abuse team at Bolt Burdon Kemp for more advice on what to do, and how we can help?

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