Safeguarding adults - do schools have a duty of care?

Sara Spinks 13 February 2024 3 min read
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In this article, former Headteacher and current SSS author, Sara Spinks explores whether the Duty of Care placed on schools also applies to adults.

Taking part in the SSS Learning Q & A webinars is always thought-provoking. These sessions offer Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs) and their deputies the opportunity to pose questions to a panel and recently a really interesting question got me thinking…

…Do DSLs have a duty of care to adults?

As a member of the SSS team and webinar panel, this got me thinking. I started from the premise that:

‘Safeguarding is everybody’s business’

In schools, we are all very aware that everyone working and volunteering with children is responsible for keeping children safe and should understand what they need to do, what to look out for and how to respond appropriately to concerns. But where do schools stand with safeguarding the adults that they come into contact with, especially where there are concerns about them being possible victims of abuse?

Many years ago, in my first headship, I had a new-to-English family who joined my school - a single father with a young daughter. Neither father nor daughter had any English to converse by, but, fortunately, I had a member of staff who spoke their language. We knew that the father and daughter were living with his sister and her family, but in time what became very clear was the father also had limited home language and significant learning needs. Initially, as a school, we were concerned whether the family unit had access to funds and the suitability of their living arrangements.

Exploring this by conducting home visits and local knowledge, it soon became clear that the father was being financially exploited, not only by his sister and family but also by some unscrupulous members of the local community, who were making him work for bags of coppers. So, now that we had this knowledge, where did our duty of care lie?

His daughter presented well, was making great strides with her learning, was happy and, in the main, healthy, and her attendance was 100%. So, the question was, did we have to intervene? Did we have a duty of care to her father?

We felt very strongly that we did have a duty of care to safeguard the father, as by doing so we would not only protect him, but we would also be safeguarding his daughter.

The tragic case of Jimmy Prout, who was abused, killed and his body dumped on wasteland in North Shields, Tyne and Wear, in 2016, comes to mind. The review into his death found there were 'clear opportunities' where agencies - including police and health services - could have spoken to him about abuse.

Four people were jailed over Mr Prout's death after jurors heard he suffered what was described as 'Dark Ages' abuse, including having his teeth knocked out with a hammer and being forced to eat one of his own testicles.

According to a domestic homicide review conducted by the Safer North Tyneside Community Partnership, Mr Prout was subject to 'significant physical abuse that could more accurately be described as torture'.

The report revealed he had been:

  • Subjected to acts of humiliation and degradation, including sexual and extreme physical abuse
  • Financially exploited
  • Deprived of his human rights and liberty

As the report stated, 'Although the abuse was happening in plain sight of the local community and in some cases, services, alerts were not raised.' It added there were 'multiple barriers' which prevented him from seeking support and said he was 'highly controlled' and had been accompanied to GP visits and was the suspect of offences against another vulnerable person and was assessed through that lens.

The review report concludes that services appeared to have been 'blind-sighted' by a 'binary narrative' that sees people as either victims or perpetrators. It said he was not identified as a possible victim of abuse and exploitation but instead was viewed as a perpetrator of domestic abuse.

Following the review, the Associate Director of Professional Standards and Safeguarding at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust said the report had given a 'valuable insight' into learning which had been shared and improvements were being implemented, including making domestic abuse training mandatory. The Head of Northumbria Police's Safeguarding Department, said agencies had learned lessons following Mr Prout's death, adding, 'Protecting those who are vulnerable is our number one priority and we will continue to work with our partners to keep our communities safe.'

Mr Prout’s life was chaotic from being a child. One of eight children, he was sent away to a boarding school in Wales, where he was abused. He never learned to read or write but was ‘good with his hands’. He went on to have two children with a partner, and 'things were going well until he started using cannabis', which led to family arguments and his children being taken into care. So, concerns were sufficient enough at this point to safeguard his children.

Mr Prout's life spiralled further from this point, leading to him becoming homeless and eventually into the hands of his abusers which resulted in his death.

So, what does this case tell us? Mr Prout was vulnerable right from being a small child, and whilst safeguarding practices have evolved throughout his life time, there were so many missed opportunities by the services that he came into contact with. Time and time again the vital signs of his vulnerabilities were missed.

So, returning to the question, do DSLs have a duty of care to safeguard adults? I would always advocate:

'if in doubt, act!'

and if any concerns begin to surface, in order to safeguard children, we need to ensure the adults around them are safeguarded too. As with children, vulnerabilities can ebb and flow with time and circumstances. Still, if professionals can keep a vigilant eye and ear on those who may need our help and/or intervention, then tragedies as happened in the case of Jimmy Prout may be avoided in the future.

Sara Spinks

SSS Author & Former Headteacher

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