Safeguarding is a term used in the United Kingdom and Ireland to denote measures to protect the health, well-being and human rights of individuals, which allow people—especially children, young people and vulnerable adults—to live free from abuse, harm and neglect.
Any child can be considered to be at risk of harm or abuse, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, sex or religion. The UK government has enacted legislation and published guidance to protect children from maltreatment, prevent the impairment of children's health or development, ensure children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care, and enable children and young people to have the best outcomes. Responsibility for these aims is deemed to lie with everyone who comes into contact with children and families.
Adults in need of safeguarding help are generally elderly and frail, and either live alone or in care homes with little support from family members. They may have mental health issues, a physical disability or learning difficulties. Professional carers ideally focus on empowerment, protection, prevention, proportionate responses, partnership and accountability to safeguard vulnerable adults. In Birmingham and the West Midlands, the term 'adults at risk' is preferred over 'vulnerable adults'.
Safeguarding children is a concept that reaches beyond child protection to incorporate the additional aims of preventing the harm of children's health and development, ensuring children are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care.
The UK Government has defined the term 'safeguarding children' as: "The process of protecting children from abuse or neglect, preventing impairment of their health and development, and ensuring they are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care that enables children to have optimum life chances and enter adulthood successfully."
This shift from traditional child protection to a more all-encompassing approach was influenced by the first Joint Chief Inspectors' safeguarding children report (2002) and the Victoria Climbié Inquiry (2003). The Every Child Matters programme outlined in the Children Act 2004 formalised these changes in approach into a legislative framework. Every Child Matters aimed to improve outcomes for children in five key areas; being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic well-being.
To help achieve this the Act made a number of institutional changes including the abolition of Area Child Protection Committees that had been deemed to have performed poorly in some areas by the Joint Chief Inspectors' 2002 report and the formation of the multi-agency Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs). These consisted of representatives from local partner agencies such as housing, health, police and probation services. The LSCBs were charged with co-ordinating the functions of all partner agencies in relation to safeguarding children. They carry out this function by, among other things, agreeing the contribution of all member agencies and deciding how these pooled funds should be allocated. In addition, they are responsible for commissioning independent Serious Case Reviews and training member agency staff in safeguarding children best practice. The Act also placed a duty on all agencies to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children 
In 2006 the government released Working Together to Safeguard Children, which set out the ways in which organizations and individuals should work together to safeguard and promote the wellbeing of children. In 2010 this was superseded by Working Together to Safeguard Children (2010) which expanded the focus on inter-agency working and took into account the recommendations of Lord Laming's 2008 progress report The Protection of Children in England which suggested it was imperative that frontline professionals get to know children as individuals. Working Together to Safeguard Children has been updated again in 2015 and again in 2018. This latest (Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018) supersedes all former versions.
For educational settings, safeguarding responsibilities are subject to statutory guidance set out in Keeping Children Safe in Education, first published 26 March 2015. This guidance was revised with effect from 1 September 2020. Changes made in 2020 include making clear that both mental and physical health are relevant to safeguarding and the welfare of children, and the role of mandatory Relationship Education, Relationship and Sex Education and Health Education in safeguarding. Teachers' standards in England require teachers to "safeguard children's wellbeing and maintain public trust in the teaching profession as part of their professional duties".
In 2014 a High Court judge said that it appeared to be a practice "widespread across the country" that children were taken into foster care based on social services reports which family courts "cut and pasted" into their own rulings, without giving the parents the opportunity to view the reports or respond to them.
The Care Act 2014 introduced new legislation regarding safeguarding vulnerable adults. Increasingly, the terms adult at risk, or adult at risk of harm, are preferred to the term vulnerable adult. The Care Act sets out a legal framework for how local authorities and other organisations should react to suspicion of abuse or neglect.
A key part of safeguarding work is assessment.
Professionals conducting assessments of families where neglect is taking place are said sometimes to make the error of not asking the right questions, such as:
- Is neglect occurring?
- Why is neglect occurring?
- What is the situation like for the child?
- Are improvements in the family likely to be sustained?
- What needs to be done to ensure the long-term safety of the child?
- National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (Ireland)
- Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 (United Kingdom)
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- Williams, M. (2015) Evidence based decisions in child neglect: An evaluation of an exploratory approach to assessment using the North Carolina Family Assessment Scale, London, NSPCC. https://www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/research-reports/evidence-based-decisions-evaluation-report.pdf