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Recognising adult abuse

Abuse of vulnerable adults can occur in many different forms in our society. The information on this page will help you to recognise the signs of abuse. If you suspect someone is being abused, you should report it as soon as possible.

Who is a vulnerable adult?

A vulnerable adult is any person aged 18 years or over, who is, or may be, unable to take care of themselves or are unable to protect themselves against significant harm or exploitation. This may be because they have a mental health problem, a disability, visual or hearing problems, are old and frail or have some form of illness.

Why do we need to protect vulnerable adults?

Vulnerable adults have the right to live their lives free from abuse. Everyone should treat vulnerable people with respect and dignity. They should be able to choose how to live their lives independently, and receive support in doing this.

What is adult abuse?

Abuse is a violation of a person's human and civil rights by any other person. Abuse can take many forms:

Physical abuse:

  • hitting
  • slapping
  • pushing
  • kicking
  • burning
  • giving medication that may harm
  • disciplining in an inappropriate way

Possible signs:

  • fractures
  • bruising
  • burns
  • pain
  • marks
  • not wanting to be touched

Psychological abuse:

  • emotional abuse
  • verbal abuse
  • humiliation
  • bullying
  • the use of threats

Possible signs:

  • being withdrawn
  • too eager to do everything they are asked
  • showing compulsive behaviour
  • not being able to do things they used to
  • not being able to concentrate or focus

Financial or material abuse:

  • stealing from the person
  • cheating them
  • using them for financial gain
  • putting pressure on them about wills, property, inheritance or financial transactions
  • misusing or stealing their property, possessions or benefits

Possible signs:

  • having unusual difficulty with finances
  • not having enough money
  • being too protective of money and things they own
  • not paying bills
  • not having normal home comforts

Sexual abuse:

  • direct or indirect sexual activity where the vulnerable adult cannot or does not agree to it

Possible signs:

  • genital itching, soreness or having a sexually transmitted disease
  • using bad language
  • not wanting to be touched
  • behaving in a sexually inappropriate way
  • changes in appearance

Neglect or acts of omission including:

  • withdrawing or not giving the help that a vulnerable adult needs, so causing them to suffer

Possible signs:

  • having pain or discomfort
  • being very hungry, thirsty or untidy
  • failing health

Discriminatory abuse including:

  • abusing a person because of their ethnic origin, religion, language, age, sexuality, gender or disability

Possible signs:

  • the person is not receiving the care they require
  • their carer is over critical or makes insulting remarks about the person
  • the person is made to dress differently from how they wish

Institutional abuse:

  • abuse or mistreatment by an organisation or by any individual within a building where the the person is living or receiving care

Possible signs:

  • the person has no personal clothing or possessions
  • there is no care plan for them
  • he or she is often admitted to hospital
  • there are instances of professionals having treated them badly or unsatisfactorily or acting in a way that cause harm to the person

*The above is only a guide and you should not consider it a complete list of forms or signs of abuse

Guidance for members of the public and staff working with vulnerable adults is available to download at the following links.

Standards and guidance for organisations working with vulnerable adults in the voluntary, community and independent sectors is also available to download from the Volunteer Now website.

How might you become aware of abuse?

  • you may see or hear something
  • a vulnerable adult may tell you about apparent abuse
  • a friend, family member or somebody else may tell you something that causes you concern
  • you may notice injuries or physical signs that cause you concern
  • you may notice either the victim or abuser behaving in a way that alerts you that something may be wrong

Who do you contact if you suspect abuse?

  • if you ever feel in immediate danger or think someone else may be in immediate danger, dial 999
  • if you suspect abuse it is important that you report your concerns to your local social services office or the police