Jono Oldershaw / Social Worker / UK
As an expedition medic, you may find yourself looking after vulnerable adults or young people. Safeguarding is an important topic on any expedition, but particularly so when your participants have additional support needs. Jono Oldershaw is a registered Social Worker with a specialist interest in international Child Protection, Mental Health and Offending. He has worked in a range of medical and institutional settings including prisons, youth offending institutions and refugee camps as a Social Worker, Healthcare Assistant and Healthcare Consultant. Here, he gives us some advice.
A brief mention of the words ‘child protection’, ‘vulnerable persons’ or ‘safeguarding’ can often be enough to stop any adventurous plan in its tracks. Caught in a spider’s web of red tape, the innovator concedes on all unknown aspects of their venture, culminating in a plan so moderated that it would hardly seem worth getting out of bed for.
However, you do not need to be an expert in safeguarding to make safe decisions on your next expedition. As a Social Worker who has worked nationally and internationally to protect vulnerable individuals, and informed UK safeguarding guidelines, here are a few tips on what to consider and how to keep both you and your expedition participants safe. So, before you become lost in risk assessments and paper work, think through the following practical steps, combined with a healthy dose of common sense.
Safeguarding is the action that is taken to promote the welfare of children and vulnerable adults, and to protect them from harm.
It means protecting children and vulnerable adults from abuse and maltreatment; preventing harm to health or development; ensuring the provision of safe and effective care and enabling all children and vulnerable adults to have the best outcomes.
(Adapted from NSPCC)
Know your team
Before you can start thinking about safeguarding you must ask two simple questions: who is on the expedition and what unique needs might these individuals have? No one expects you to be an expert and fortunately there are loads of great resources to help you think about safeguarding your team. There isn’t room here to list them all but for children, the NSPCC and CEOP are great places to start; for adults, try SCIE and MIND.
Once you have characterised the likely needs of your participants, think about identifying any local resources you could draw on in case of any concerns during the expedition. For example, if your participants are from the UK and all reside in a particular area, it would be worthwhile arming yourself with the local authority’s adult and children services referral and assessment team contact details, including the out-of-office team. Take time to understand the local support structures present in your destination, and be mindful of cultural context and its impact on safeguarding thresholds.
Hopefully you will not be alone. There will likely be an expedition leader, other staff and volunteers involved in your trip, so it is best to ensure these individuals have also undertaken a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check and are appropriately trained.
Screen your team
If there are particular aspects of your expedition you feel might present safeguarding concerns (think conversation topics that could uncover difficult memories or imperfect sleeping conditions) then try to find out a little bit more about your participants before you go. A relevant and simple questionnaire in advance of departure is an effective way of doing some light checking on how comfortable your team is with the arrangements and whether they might wish to disclose any concerns.
Adapt your approach to reflect new information
Speak with peers, expedition leaders and support staff from the institutions your participants attend to gather as much information as possible. Understandably, some may be wary of saying too much under data protection legislation but most should be willing to provide some guidance, particularly if the information provided is not person-specific and cannot be used to identify any one individual. This information may be critical in assessing risk and safeguarding against any concerns, but will also likely prove useful for informing your approach to the expedition as a whole. If you can’t find an adaptation which helps to manage the known concerns, then it might be best to seek further advice from the team or review, in light of your internal safeguarding policy. If you don’t have such protocols in place: the NSPCC provides a very useful snapshot on what to include here, along with some examples.
Incorporate safeguarding concerns into your risk assessment
This way you have them embedded into everything you do rather than tacked on as an afterthought. Dom Hall has written a really useful article on risk assessments so I will say no more.
Share risk with your peers, don’t juggle it alone
Before you set off, be sure to discuss any concerns with the team. It may be that the buck stops with you or the expedition leader when it comes to owning risk, but sharing knowledge and understanding with the team will prove a critical tool in helping you to manage any issues over the course of the expedition. Remind everyone of their confidentiality duties and your expectations for reporting and recording incidents.
As a general rule, safeguarding trumps confidentiality.
Observe staff and participants
This one speaks for itself. You should keep an observant eye on both staff and participant activity throughout your expedition. Speak to the participants and set out clearly at the start how you will manage confidential matters and when information will be shared. If you do have concerns, you need to gauge the level of risk presented and decide what an appropriate and reasonable safeguarding response might be. If in doubt, it is best to choose the more severe response in order to be sure. As a general rule, safeguarding trumps confidentiality. Remember, if you can justify your decision at the time with the information presented to you then your response is most likely both measured and appropriate. Unfortunately, hindsight is a wonderful thing and sometimes you will be challenged.
Record niggling incidents
It often takes times for a full picture to evolve and you will be thankful for having recorded the details whilst your memory is fresh. Record any incidents, actions or words that are of note throughout the expedition. Often these events will be nothing to worry about but sometimes they can be helpful in piecing together a bigger picture when concerns evolve at a later point. If you are in a region with internet access and it was appropriate to the expedition, you could even identify a suitable incident form online and encourage all of the leadership team to use this format when noting down their observations.
Keep safeguarding on the agenda
Whilst safeguarding may be high on your list of priorities, it won’t be for everyone involved. It might not be until you ask the question that you come to hear about some relevant information. Incorporate a specified time for safeguarding conversations with the team both as part of your preparations and during your morning/ evening debrief on the expedition. This will help with recording concerns and ensuring your team are attentive to the needs of the participants.
Post-expedition follow up
If you have information that you feel warrants a referral into social services, or perhaps is below the threshold but you still think should be shared, write it up as a concern and share with the relevant professional(s). Initially you should only share this information with a suitable professional on a need to know basis: this might be a school, GP, community support worker, social worker or the police. If you believe an individual is in, or at risk of, immediate danger then call the police, and follow up with a referral to the local authority safeguarding assessment team. Avoid sharing the information widely as the statutory professional will know how best to proceed. Where appropriate, speak to the individual or their family network first; the individual involved is the expert on their own needs and both children and adults are often very resourceful in meeting these needs.
Avoid on-going contact with participants unless appropriate to do so for your particular expedition. On occasion, individuals will struggle to understand professional boundaries and seek to connect via social media or extend the relationship unnecessarily beyond the expedition. Endings can be difficult but need to be managed in a clear and sensitive manner.
Critical reflection is a great way to learn from your experiences and think more about your safeguarding practice. You might want to run a reflection session with the team to explore what went well and areas for improvement. This can be done just as effectively on your own. If you need some more guidance have a look at Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle, widely used by practitioners and easy to digest.
The above should be more than enough to keep you and your participants safe on most expeditions. If you are looking to build your knowledge base further due to the nature of your expeditions or the heightened needs and vulnerabilities of your participants there are a number of training opportunities available to you. Again, SCIE and NSPCC will be well placed to advise on this. In the meantime, just remember: plan, record and reflect.
(Photos: Jono Oldershaw)