Thought for the Week – Safeguarding

Charley Matthews, St James’s Safeguarding Officer, explains what safeguarding means to them.

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You might have heard that safeguarding is everybody’s responsibility. That might seem ambitious.

Safeguarding can, and often does, mean bureaucracy. And, often, safeguarding does feel and function bureaucratically. There are checks and forms, procedures and protocols.

But, safeguarding, at its core, is a confession of responsibility. An acknowledgement of power, and the inevitability that when humans wield power we will cause harm. It is a body (a state, a company, a church) recognising its capacity to damage, and admitting that, apparently not so obviously, that is not what it should be doing.

These recognitions haven’t come from a thought experiment. They have come from countless instances of uncovered abuse perpetrated by people empowered by some position that they hold.

What’s more, power is dreadful at holding itself to account. In 2003, the preventable murder of Victoria Climbié, after decades of existing child protection legislation, shocked the establishment into deeper legal frameworks that attempt to require an earnest effort of responsibility for those who are vulnerable. Tragically, twenty years later we have learnt too much that proves whatever we’re doing isn’t enough.

Nonetheless, safeguarding principles should be founded in an understanding that we live in a society that constructs the vulnerability of certain people. And those people can be victim to things that must offend our souls. And it acknowledges that we should be making efforts against this.

The first principle of the 2014 Care Act is empowerment. I think this is a good place to start. Too often, and with good reason, we think about safeguarding as simply a way of protection. But protection isn’t enough if in doing it we are re-establishing systems which enabled harm in the first place. We should, as often as we can, interrogate the ways in which we have disempowered our siblings, and how we can return that power to them. We should find ways to share our power, and where we can’t or won’t we must make every attempt to make sure our power isn’t being used to do harm.

And as we’re in Pride month, it is worth considering how gender difference and sexual orientation fit into our efforts to (dis)empower people. Most social workers in the U.K. are now taught to use the ‘Social Graces’ tool. It is a framework which encourages social workers to consider how certain characteristics can establish power differences, both interpersonally but also systemically.

Gender and sexual orientation are 2 of the original 15 ‘social graces’. Thinking about how someone’s gender and/or sexual orientation contributes to their identity certainly isn’t about pitying their exclusion or feeing bad on account of their trauma. It shouldn’t be a way, in other words, to catalogue disadvantage. Rather, the tool can help us to get to know someone, and to provoke a deeper understanding of the way in which they respond in the world, and, more importantly, how the world responds to them. Considering these things can help us to be better allies; to redistribute power, even in small ways.

In his final speech in the House of Commons, Tony Benn proposed some questions that were designed to test the balance of power and democracy: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” Benn suggested that these questions should be asked of political leaders. I would say they are appropriately asked of anyone in a position of authority. Too much of power in our society is invisible and uninterrogated.

The last of the six principles in the Care Act is accountability. And really, this is an understanding of fallibility: we will do wrong, we will cause harm and even if we try to prevent it, our efforts will not be sufficient. So how can we always try do better? Other people; their checks, assessments and collaboration. And this is what generates the forms and the policies. Because, something needs to be constructed against the vast societal structures of power that have done so much harm. But the bureaucracy must be in service of deep compassion which seeks peace, but knows its improbability.

Harm and suffering are part of life for everyone sometimes, and it is not the job of a Safeguarding Officer to wrap things in cotton wool and prevent involvement and participation. If we believe in the world’s beauty and holiness, we also need to be aware of its damage and pain. And we need to be OK with the fact that getting involved in the world of people will be messy and it can be dangerous. So, we have to take risks (living is risking). But we need to strive to know what and who we are risking, and we need to participate with our eyes open and with the intention of good.

I believe that safeguarding is radical. It can try to activate a society where every person is free from the oppression of another. It should be a way that we demonstrate our love, one for another.