i spent some of the last twelve months trying to coproduce, and then polish, a resource on safeguarding for an organisation i used to work with. i ended up having to hand it back to them a few months ago, unfinished. i write a lot of personal stuff, sharing the raw reflections of an unstable recovery journey. but some writing causes its own pain.
as a ‘vulnerable person’ (as we “lived experience” types are known), i have encountered many safeguarding policies. i’ve even trained in how to create and deliver them, and worked with many of those who have received the same training. i have rarely seen a safeguarding policy which is designed with and for those it alleges to protect. and i hardly ever see one well-maintained, holding all parties to account, and placing the needs and consent of the ‘vulnerable person’ above all else.
it’s saddening, and scary, to observe several of those safeguarding leads then using those policies to protect only themselves.
like all law, policies are only as useful as the intention behind their creation, and the resources one has to fight them with. why else would Tories have defunded Legal Aid just before bringing in austerity measures which only impacted those already struggling? why else would there be no British Human Rights Act now we’ve left Europe? and why are our very rights to peaceful protest being removed before our eyes this very minute? the rhetoric of law, of policy, can say one thing. the practicable implementation of those laws as protections are only available to those with money, status, power. no surprises, then, that those with the money, status and power only serve to protect their own status quo.
here’s the thing. if you, as a vulnerable person, disclose something around your own safeguarding needs, what *might* happen – in a kind and just world – is something like this:
vulnerable person: i do not feel safe. i need protection. please help me.
safeguarding lead: thank you for trusting me enough to share that with me. i can appreciate that this is a difficult time for you and i’m here to listen, if you wish to share more, or to take steps to protect you, if that is what you choose. firstly: how are you right now? are you in a safe place right now? what do you need in this moment? take all the time you need, i see you, i hear you, and i am here for you.
the role of a safeguarding lead is – or in an ideal world, could be – to listen, hold safe space, put aside everything else and simply centre attention on that vulnerable person and their needs in that moment. to show up, be present, provide calming co-regulation to re-ground a disrupted nervous system. to de-escalate the crisis. it is not to judge, or fix, or excuse, or blame, or do anything else that might otherwise increase the risk that person is experiencing in that moment.
sadly the world is not built that way. it’s rarely so neat, simple, or clean.
what tends to happen instead, is:
vp: *arrives in crisis, displaying erratic and emotionally unstable behaviours, caught somewhere between the raging fear of their trauma with its decades of internalised anger and torment, and the deeply conflicted sense that they don’t deserve this pain, despite decades of lived experience telling them it’s always been all their fault, so why should this be any different?*
their “i need help” can be seen more through their frantic words and lashing out, instead of the calm communication one might expect of a regulated, untraumatised, mindbody.
sl: *sees the external shell, reacts to the intensity of their delivery, quite probably getting triggered in return. instantly bypasses their own regulated state and defaults to their own unhealed trauma response for self protection. instead of de-escalating the crisis, they actively escalate it to a whole new level of threat: “how will this affect me, personally? what responsibilities do i, does the organisation who pays my bills, hold here? and how is this person’s crisis likely to threaten my own and my orgs’ safety?”*
in the second scenario, there is no held safe space. there is no centring of the vulnerable person’s needs. there is only an immediate leap toward litigation defence building. the powerful defending itself.
triggered people trigger people, just like hurt people hurt people. and far too many hurt people work in support services. traumatised souls seeking to save others in order to avoid facing their own demons, while appearing ‘worthy’ to the outside world. the vulnerable leading the vulnerable… except only one side has rights, protections, and the law or its policies on its side.
vulnerable people do not disclose risk unless we absolutely have to. by the time we’ve reached the crisis moment of expressing those needs, no matter how buried in pain, we’re already raw, threatened, desperate, suicidal. and for this we receive tone policing (“i will only listen if you talk quietly and calmly”), and agency removal (“i have decided what is best for you and am now going to take this private sharing and make it public… to “help” you… against your consent”). it doesn’t matter that their role *states* they are there to protect you. it matters that their role *exists* to protect themselves and the organisations they work for.
vulnerable people, who already know we don’t matter, are once more blamed, shamed, and stripped bare by those who allege to provide care. to call it ‘psychological abuse’ sounds extreme, yet that’s precisely how it feels to receive. further abuse, modelling repeat patterns of a lifetime of neglect, abandonment, rejection. when this keeps happening to me, i must deserve this. they can’t all be wrong… right?
i could list multiple safeguarding breaches i have experienced, every vulnerable person can. i once disclosed that i had been raped to someone from a leading homelessness charity. i shared it to provide some ‘context’ to the triggered outpouring it was wrapped within. they replied to that email without a single word of support, instead ccing two total strangers in an effort to protect themselves. my rawness in a moment of crisis, already made far worse by their numerous other lack of safeguarding protections, now with my painful disclosure publicly disseminated via electronic carbon copy.
i share my rawness a lot. perhaps they had seen that and felt my traumas were already public domain. they are not. they are only ever mine to share, or hold secret. they are never for others to then redistribute. especially others who sit in paid, stable positions of power who are only using my vulnerabilities to show what a good job they are doing by ‘supporting me’. my pain just another notch on their ‘good human’ bedpost.
my pain is my journey to navigate. my survival can only be gained through the empowerment of my own agency. to believe i matter, to be treated with kindness and respect, and for my informed consent to be centred upon.
if i am daring to trust you with any aspect of that journey, i expect you to honour that trust. i do not expect you to further the abuse i am struggling to survive. no matter how much i hate myself, blame myself, am ashamed of all my failings and despise my own existence… you do not get to further abuse me, against my consent, in the name of ‘helping me’.
ironically, that charity was running a project where they claimed to offer best practice training for coproduction – centring the voices of lived experience. these failings in safeguarding and trauma-informed care practices therefore being furthered around a sector which already fails so many. their brands gleaming with accolades and celebration of their good deeds and kind hearts.
i had a choice, then. did i call them out, blog about their list of breaches, the risks they invite as a ‘model of best practice’, encourage discussion around why those failings are harmful in order to tear apart those old tropes and redesign systems which actually do protect the vulnerable?
of course not. one visibly broken person standing up to the giants of ‘authority’ will only invite further abuse as that giant defends itself… the only thing it is really designed to do. cancel culture has grown into an impressive stick to further beat the marginalised with. and then there’s the social responsibility aspect; no support service is perfect, just as no individual can be, and infighting is what’s empowering the mess we’re in now. do i want to add to that? is it responsible to challenge a ‘handful of insignificant errors’ (to them) which may threaten some of the other, necessary, good work being done by some of the (seemingly very few) genuinely decent humans who happen to work in those organisations?
when is standing up for yourself and others more important than not rocking an already sinking boat?
who is safeguarding really for?
my experience is that safeguarding – at least as it is offered by organisations reliant on the maintenance of the status quo – is only designed to protect that status quo. if you were already on the outside, already nonconformist in your identity or beliefs, already not belonging – and not wanting to belong to this world and its barbaric systems… your views, your experience, your very existence simply does not matter. comply, stay silent or make yourself easy to digest and we will welcome you. display any sense of a precarity that might impact our hard-won power (or rather, our shaky hold on the crumbs of such perceived power) and we will betray you.
i do not consent to this form of rhetorical, tokenistic safeguarding. i do not comply with its institutional self protections. and i will not stay quiet while it continues to abuse those it alleges to care for.
these systems are not designed for us, or for a better world of justice and healing. they only seek to self-serve and, in doing so, they fail all of us. all of the good work so many are authentically and accountably delivering across grassroots movements is tarnished by these mainstream, everyday micro-aggressors. those who self-serve in return for kudos-cookies are a cancer to social justice movements everywhere. even in my most broken, vulnerable, wrong, and full of rage states, i hold more accountability in my left toenail than all of them combined.
so, to those who see themselves within the unfortunate descriptions above, if anyone comes to you in trauma:
- do not steal our agency.
- do not abuse our trust.
and, if we come to you with our rawness and you refuse to hold space to see us, hear us, and help us to find safety:
- get the fuck out of the way of our journey to liberation.