One of the ironies of safeguarding practice, is that when it’s not done well, it can bring new risks into people’s lives at their most vulnerable times. This is partly because there is – almost inevitably – a power imbalance in any safeguarding process: it’s a time when professionals exert their power, often under pressure and at high speed, and when people can feel like they are least well-listened to, and have fewest choices.
Safeguarding situations are supposed to be when everyone’s focus is on the risks facing the individual, but these situations also feel risky to the professionals carrying them out. It can be career-ending to get a safeguarding decision wrong, and conscientious professionals live with the anxiety of someone suffering preventable harm ‘on their watch’. When professionals and people who use services are both scared, it’s the fear of the person with most power – the professional – which wins out. Social care making safeguarding personal guidance aims to put the focus on the individual’s wishes and best interests, but where professionals’ own fears, and power, remain unspoken, it can be difficult to achieve a genuinely personalised and asset-based approach to safeguarding.
Safeguarding incidents are far rarer within Shared Lives than in other kinds of support (according to safeguarding data from care and health inspectors, CQC), but when concerns are raised, they are not always responded to well. Shared Lives draws on elements of both a service and of family life, with Shared Lives carers taking on a role that is at once professional and personal. The model draws its strength from that unusual combination but (as I wrote about in my book) it means it exists in an ambiguous (liminal) zone between service-land and private life, where professionals can feel dangerously lost as they try to follow rules which don’t quite fit.
Samir (name and identifying details changed) has lived happily for many years in a Shared Lives arrangement, with Maya who supports him with autism, a learning disability and health care needs. There is a busy road outside their house and after breakfast Samir, who needs support with travelling safely, usually sits in a room facing the street waiting to be picked up for his daytime activities. As in many houses, the front door is kept locked for security. Sometimes Samir finds it funny to sneak out and walk to his daytime activities, without telling anyone he has gone. Last time he did this, Maya immediately phoned ahead to say Samir would be arriving on foot and asked them to contact her when he arrived. He got there safely but did not come home.
Maya was subsequently informed that Samir had told a day support worker that he had been locked in the house so had had to escape. This had been reported, necessarily, as a possible deprivation of liberty and safeguarding incident, which therefore needed to be investigated, but what happened next was the kind of response we see too often. Had Samir been living with his family, the safeguarding team would have considered Samir’s rights to family life. Had he been living in a care home, they would have had a conversation with their fellow professionals to find out what happened. But in this instance, a social worker simply collected Samir and took him to emergency accommodation. Neither Maya nor her manager were told or asked what had happened. Knowing only that a safeguarding investigation was ongoing, the Shared Lives scheme had no option but to suspend Maya, also effectively suspending any other care she was providing. Samir phoned Maya repeatedly over the following days in distress, saying that he wanted to come home. He walked home himself on several occasions, but was not allowed to return to stay.
I found this story so upsetting to read. After lots of persistence, Samir eventually got back home, but he spent time with inadequate support, in a place he didn’t want to be, over a miserable Christmas. Health issues that had been well-managed have become problematic again. All of this distress and – ironically – the risks to his safety and health were entirely avoidable. Safeguarding procedures stress the importance of respecting the alleged victim’s confidentiality, but in this instance, simply asking Maya what had happened could have avoided untold distress and disruption. Without talking to either Maya, or the registered manager of her Shared Lives scheme, it’s hard to see how Samir’s wishes and ‘best interests’ had been established. Case law has established that a court order should have been sought before removing Samir from what he regarded as his family home. As Lord Justice Munby has said, safeguarding must respect the autonomy and independence of individuals as well as their right to family life: “those affected must be allowed to participate effectively in the decision-making process.” At Shared Lives Plus we have been reviewing our work and aims using a human rights framework and as a result we will be bringing a human rights perspective into all of our work.
We have worked with ADASS to publish a joint guide to better safeguarding practice, which draws on making safeguarding personal, designed to put people at the centre of any decision-making and to live with a certain level of risk in their lives if they choose to. It aims to improve safeguarding practice both to identify and tackle more effectively the real risks and incidents which do sadly happen from time to time within Shared Lives, and to avoid the unnecessary use of rigid safeguarding practice where it is not warranted. Patchy understanding of Shared Lives within safeguarding teams is a key barrier to the right calls being made during a pressurised situation: if you are in a position to share this story with social care professionals, please do.
Samir was living safely and well for years. Sometimes the stress of unfounded safeguarding action can lead to the permanent breakdown of a longstanding Shared Lives arrangement. When Samir decided to pull his favourite prank and sneak out of the house, he had no idea that a system designed to keep him safe, was about to put him in real danger.