June 12, 2011 10:38 pm

Abuse of vulnerable appears pervasive

More than 10,000 vulnerable adults living in England, many of them with profound learning and physical disabilities, were abused in only six months, according to unpublished government figures seen by the Financial Times.

Covering four out of five English councils, they show that in the six months to March 2010, social care departments received more than 40,000 formal complaints about the abuse of vulnerable adults. The data, the first of their kind collected, reveal that a care worker or relative was most commonly the alleged ­perpetrator.

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During the same period, more than 8,600 claims were either wholly or partly substantiated, with investigations into a further 6,400 ending inconclusively. Adjusted to reflect the whole adult population of England, the substantiated figures suggest at least 10,400 vulnerable adults would have been abused over the six-month period.

The data were collected by the NHS Information Centre and obtained by the FT amid growing concerns that care for elderly and disabled adults in England is of poor quality, underfunded, too lightly regulated and overdependent on private providers. An investigation by this newspaper last month found one in seven private homes was rated either “poor” or “adequate” by the regulator.

The abuse figures show that, in a quarter of all proved cases, the victims were learning-disabled adults aged from 18 to 64. In a further quarter, the abuse was meted out to frail elderly people aged 85 or older. Proven cases involving this age group indicate that five out of every 1,000 suffer abuse each year.

For learning-disabled younger adults, the figure is 34 for every 1,000 whose condition is known to social service departments – or 5,500 cases of abuse across England each year.

Peter Hay, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Care, admitted that procedures for protecting vulnerable adults were failing. “We are not giving people the peace of mind that care is really a safe, quality product,” he said.

In total, over a third of alleged abuse recorded in the council statistics occurred in residential care homes, with a further third occurring in the alleged victim’s own home.

The most common type of alleged abuse was physical – defined to include “hitting, slapping, pushing, kicking”, as well as the misuse of constraint and medication to sedate and contain. In total, just under a third of all allegations recorded by councils were categorised as “physical”. That rose to 40 per cent among learning-disabled adults under 64.

A further fifth of allegations related to financial abuse, such as theft and pressure to change wills. Five per cent were of sexual abuse, with the highest incidence among learning- disabled 18 to 64-year-olds.

The most common alleged perpetrators were unqualified care workers, with just under a quarter of all allegations made against them. Gary Fitzgerald, chief executive of charity Action on Elder Abuse, said this statistic made it more “disappointing” that the previous government had taken the “retrograde step” of ditching plans for mandatory regulation of care workers.

He was also critical of delays in giving statutory weight to council panels set up to safeguard vulnerable adults. At present, they cannot force other agencies to share information about abuse concerns. Nor can they gain entry to alleged victims’ homes.

But in a statement to the FT, Paul Burstow, care ser­vices minister, said: “After years of delay this government is putting in place a new voluntary registration scheme for careworkers. And we will put Adult Safeguarding Boards on a statutory footing requiring councils, NHS and police to work together to ensure those at risk of harm or exploitation will be safer.”

The NHS Information Centre has not published the full data on abuse as councils were inconsistent in how they recorded referrals. The inconsistency means the scale of formal complaints could be under-recorded, though figures on the number of cases substantiated after investigations are more reliable.

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