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Describe what constitutes harm and explain why an individual may be vulnerable to harm or abuse

This page is designed to answer the following questions:

NOTE: This page has been quality assured for 2021 as per our Quality Assurance policy.

Harm is a term generally used to describe physical injury, pain and death but can also result from non-physical mistreatment such as emotional or financial abuse.

It can be the result of a responsible person (such as a care worker or family member) doing something incorrectly (e.g. not following correct procedure when repositioning an individual cared for in bed) or not doing something that they should do (e.g. not giving an individual their medication). Harm can be deliberate or unintentional.

An individual that you work with may self-harm or have a history of self-harming. The support that you provide, including the associated risk assessments, should be documented in the individual’s care plan. This should be informed by the individual, their family/friends and professionals (such as their GP or psychologist). You may also access support from other organisations that provide specialist advice and guidance.

Factors that may contribute to an individual being more vulnerable to abuse

In your role as a care worker. it is likely that you will come into contact with individuals that are more vulnerable to harm and abuse.

This can be due to several factors, including:

  • Physical disability e.g. mobility issues, limited independence, unable to defend themselves
  • Learning disability e.g. not fully understanding that they are being abused/neglected
  • Communication difficulties e.g. if recovering from a stroke – unable to communicate that they have been abused
  • Mental illness e.g. hallucinations, confusion, anxiety, depression, fear of reporting, not being believed
  • Addictions e.g. drug abuse, alcohol abuse
  • Social isolation e.g. having no support circle
  • Dementia e.g. confusion or unable to recall abuse happening
  • Dependency e.g. unable to leave or report the situation
  • Family conflict e.g. generational differences in opinion
  • Location e.g. in an individual’s home an abuser can hide their actions easily or in a residential home organisational abuse is more likely to occur
  • Poorly-trained staff e.g. staff not knowing how to deal with an individual with behaviour that challenges
  • Poorly-managed support e.g. poor workplace-culture, lack of resources, institutional abuse, overworked staff
  • Carer-related e.g. stress (especially if the carer has other priorities such as children or work), poor relationships, lack of support or financing

When considering the nature and scope of harm and abuse to adults at risk, it is important to understand that harm and abuse towards vulnerable people can happen anywhere and be both deliberate and unintentional. Performing a task as simple as cutting an individual’s fingernails can constitute harm and abuse if they do not have the relevant documentation in their care plan or you have not been properly trained in this task. Similarly, eating an individual’s food even if they are leftovers or past their sell-by date and will be thrown away could constitute financial/material abuse.

Employers must have safeguards in place to ensure that vulnerable adults are protected. This includes having agreed ways of working, policies and procedures that comply with legislation and best practice. Employees must adhere to these agreements to ensure that their own practice complies with legislation and best practice or they could be liable if things go wrong.

Both employers and employees must also be transparent when things go wrong (duty of candour) and report incidents to the relevant agencies (e.g. social services, HSE, police etc.).

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