Safeguarding policy, like any other policy implemented in good faith (HSE guidelines are a good example), is not a bad thing. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that not everyone has other people’s best interests in mind. There have been too many cases where a child was harmed by the people who were meant to protect them, or a vulnerable adult has had their trust betrayed by the people who “care” for them. Implemented properly, it protects vulnerable people (children and adults) from the people who would cause them harm, and protects innocent people from life-destroying false accusations.
However, like the HSE guidelines, these policies are open to misunderstandings and abuse. Sensible precautions, such as ensuring that physical contact is unambiguously appropriate, become cast iron restrictions, like the (false) assumption that an adult member cannot touch a youth member. Reasonable restrictions on what we can do with cadets (like not putting them in a dangerous situation) becomes an excuse to do nothing with them. Interesting activities are abandoned on nebulous ‘safeguarding grounds’, and ultimately people’s experience with the Organisation suffers (more on this later).
It is very easy to forget the main aim of safeguarding is to keep people safe, not to wrap them up in cotton wool and do nothing with them. The point is to protect me from false accusations, not to stop me acting when I see an obvious need to intervene.
Take two examples that have happened to me recently. The first one, on my way to my recent holiday, I tweeted about:
In this case, I was stood next to a little boy, and he nearly stepped out in front of an ambulance (under blue lights, no less). Mum was stood nearby, chatting to her friend, and he was wandering around and went to step off the curb. I put my arm out, rather fast, and made sure he stayed where he was. Fairly understandably, he wasn’t too impressed that some random man had stopped him walking around.
His mum was furious. And not because he’d walked off, or because he’d wandered into the road. No, she was angry because I had dared to touch her son and made him cry. I’ll be honest, I was quite blunt with her, explaining precisely what had happened and why I had felt it necessary to act as I had. She wouldn’t have any of it (hence my angry tweets), and I had a train to catch, so I just walked off.
My second example happened today. I was in a supermarket, doing my shopping, and had an encounter with a two-ish year old boy and his dad. The little boy hadn’t been paying attention to where he was going, and I had to dodge to avoid him. Dad was very apologetic, but I made it clear that there was no problem, and we continued our individual shops.
As I headed to the tills to pay, I encountered the same little boy again, this time without his dad. I had a quick look around and spotted his dad looking rather frantic and heading our way, and the boy was making a determined attempt to wonder off. Before he got too far, I walked up to him, took his hand and lead him back to his dad. Dad was very grateful, and everyone was happy. No problems.
Both times I physically intervened to prevent a child from coming to harm. Both times I think I feel I acted correctly, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing again, even knowing how the first scenario would turn out. Both times I think I acted in the spirit of our safeguarding policy, and that is keeping vulnerable people safe.
And yet, if you believed the ‘no touching’ brigade, both times I broke policy, and the first instance (where, in other circumstances, my actions could quite rightly have been considered an assault) doubly so. Even though both times things could have gone a lot worse if I hadn’t acted.
I think that the biggest problem I have with safeguarding is not that it exists, or that it’s quite strict. It’s that policy is being applied blindly, and is being used to replace common sense. And while this doesn’t directly cause any harm to anyone, everyone suffers from lost opportunities.
I’ve dealt with little kids with quite serious (though not life-threatening) injuries. I’ve treated patients with chest pains and irregular heart rhythms and ones who think they’re going to die and ones that fall asleep and I think they’re going to die. I’ve had arguments with young people, nearly lost youth members in massive crowds, and had a number of other heart racing situations when they’ve been around. Every time, as soon as the adrenaline has worn off, I’ve just shrugged and got on with things. I’ve felt tired, frustrated, irritated, and even downright angry after treating, but nothing that has ever lasted after I’ve signed out and headed home (well, except the tired, but hey, I work hard on duty… well, most of the time).
This happened nearly a year ago now, and I wrote most of this post at least six months ago. It’s been sitting in my drafts box ever since, and now, I feel that it’s about time I brush it off and actually post it. Youth problems always hit me hard. I genuinely care about the young people in my charge, be they patients, members of the organisation, or just that lost boy who came up to me in the street (a story for later, perhaps). (Without trying to sound defensive, don’t take this the wrong way. I care about their welfare, nothing more. And I really dislike that society is such that I feel the need to point this out.) There is a reason I am considering training to be a Paediatric nurse. However, I don’t normally have a problem putting this aside either.
This, however, was a step beyond.
It looked like a simple patient. I was technically off duty (everyone else had gone home, and I was only there because I’d bought some snacks from the local shop) and spotted a woman, with a couple of kids, who was probably just rather drunk. At first assessment it seemed to be a simple case of sitting with the three of them, trying to keep the mother uninjured and the kids occupied, until someone came to pick them all up. Then a report to our Safeguarding Officer to flag a concern, just in case this is a regular occurrence, and I’m done.
Instead, to cut a long story short, it turned in to a walk half way across the city, following this woman as she staggered and weaved home, chucked abuse at me for following her, and a protracted conversation with a police call taker while we walked. Throughout all of this, I believe I maintained a suitably professional image to all concerned (well, everyone sober enough to make a valid judgement), even when she left her kids in the middle of the road to challenge me for following her (I hasten to add that I chose that moment to also stand in the middle of this road, so that cars would at least hit me in my bright yellow hi-vis, before it hit the kids. And before anyone says anything, I know my safety is supposed to come first. There are some things you have to do…).
Much as I would have liked to, I have no power to remove the children from parents, even for their own safety. Following this tottering woman, until the police arrived, was my only option. If the same circumstances came up again, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all again, even knowing the final result.
So yes, it was a worrying incident, but it was dealt with as swiftly as possible (my goodness! What a run around trying to get me, the police and woman in the same vague location), properly reported, and throughout I was calm, controlled and confident. I even managed to make my verbal Child Protection report without a problem (as the police were involved and I had already spoken to them, an official written report would only be needed if the police needed a statement).
That is, however, until I started walking home. I was taking the long way, mainly to avoid the crowd that I’d attracted during the walk about. Nobody was being threatening (in fact, quite the opposite, they were completely understanding and a couple even a little grateful). I didn’t even get a quarter of the way up my hill before the shakes set in, shortly followed by the tears.
Any driver who happened to be paying attention to the pavement would have seen a man in a medical Hi-Viz, perched on someone’s step, looking in a right state.
Thankfully I have a good group of friends in the Organisation, many of whom are very willing to spend ages with a slightly hysterical guy immediately after a long duty. I must have sat on that step for a good 45 minutes getting everything aired, repeating myself over and over, and taking up this good friend’s precious time.
To this day, I’m still not entirely sure what about this particularly got to me. Yes it was high-stress, but so was the patient probably having a heart attack, or the one on the boat in the harbour. If I’m honest, I’ve never really closely examined the situation in order to work it out. It’s not exactly an experience I want to relive. It’s hardly a moment to be overly proud of.
So I choose not to focus on it. I got over it, eventually. And, when it mattered, I held it together. It might have been only just long enough, but it was long enough. And that I think I can be proud of.