‘How can I help?’ I asked the po-faced Detective Inspector. ‘You can start’, she said, ‘with the names, addresses and dates of birth of everyone in your agency’.
A week before, life was easy. A trusting organisation where bad things didn’t happen, where paperwork was tedious and policies were for corporate suits. Then came the phone call outlining an allegation against a staff member. Six months later, said staff member in prison, two others under suspicion and 70 young lives torn apart, the organisation started to get to grips with the aftermath of having been targeted by a predatory paedophile. The person had only been caught because they’d become overconfident in the light of the lax or virtually non-existent procedures that the organization had put in place. For the first month of the major police and social services investigation, not a single person in an agency with hundreds of staff was above police suspicion.
Safeguarding is thinking the unthinkable and then figuring out how to reduce the probability of the unthinkable happening. Above all it is thinking about power, specifically with those who are in power and who are not used to having their power interrogated. Part of safeguarding is recognising that bad people can and do exploit good people, and that, on occasion, good people do bad things.
When initiating safeguarding processes there are three questions which organisations should ask.
- The first one is obvious. It involves identifying the powerless, those who are vulnerable, those without obvious agency.
- The second question is more difficult. Who holds the power; how and to whom are people vulnerable?
- And the last question is, given that all people, even those cast into the role of the vulnerable have agency, how do we also focus and channel that?
The wrong question, and the one most organizations typically ask first and foremost, is ‘How do we write a policy to cover this?’ The policy will only be as good as the cultural shift that first has to happen. Once that has occurred the policy will almost write itself. To encourage this cultural shift, it is important to ask the other three questions first.
Much has been made of different vulnerable populations and the special conferences and policies which have been drawn up in countless agencies. The common theme is power: power wielded by those who think there will be no come back, no sanctions, and no barriers. This is where the cultural transformation that is required has to start. That those in power, whomever that is and wherever they are in the organisation, need to recognise that they are accountable. They then need to question what the accountability processes around themselves need to look like to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable.
The vulnerable are those who don’t have a voice, who cannot speak up and who find themselves unable to stop, avoid or evade bad things being done to them. The accountability process must also provide a scaffolding for those voices to be expressed, heard, attended to and acted upon. This process does not ‘give’, ‘provide’, ‘support’ or ‘facilitate’ the agency of the vulnerable. That assumes that agency is donated or granted by the powerful to the vulnerable. Scaffolding provides routes for the vulnerable, who have already have agency, to speak and to be heard. These can include confidential hotlines (for example Childline in the UK), structured supervision, chat rooms in social media.
Above all it means agencies are responsible for ensuring that all interactions, from the CEO to the latest contractor, with all staff and all beneficiaries are safe. Again, crucially, this involves exploring what safety looks like from the perspective of the powerless.
‘Thank you’, said the po-faced Detective Inspector six months later. ‘Your transparency and lack of defensiveness meant a bad situation didn’t get worse and the children you are working with are safe. For now’.