Vulnerable adults -who are they?

vulnerable_adults_10In a recent discussion on this blog I threw out the comment that I did not agree with the definition accepted by the church as to who is a ‘vulnerable adult’. I have now checked the various web-sites that deal with this question, and I have discovered that the Church of England and the Methodist Church have worked together on a definition which fits into a use employed by society at large. A ‘vulnerable adult’ is defined as any adult who is receipt of statutory care of some description. This might mean a resident in a hospital, a care home or receiving some other form of care, whether residential or not. Excluded from this definition are groups of people who have a particular health issue, mental or physical which do not require any sort of institutional care. This is to avoid the idea of stigma, that an individual can be labelled for life as vulnerable when they succeed in living quite independently and capably.

Before I express my reservations on the question of the high-jacking of the word ‘vulnerable’ to fit a particular definition, I want to talk about the word itself. It comes from a Latin word which means to wound, so that the English derivation has the meaning of one who is in danger of being wounded, emotionally or physically. It carries with it the notion of being defenceless or incapable of sticking up for oneself against a strong opponent or attacker. Clearly it is a useful word to describe anyone who is a victim of the aggression or power games of another. A person is vulnerable when there is some kind of threat of an attack to their wellbeing. He or she also remains vulnerable after the attack, of whatever kind, has taken place.

It is clear that from my mention above of the formal definition of ‘vulnerable adult’ that we have an example of a situation where a word used in a particular way has taken to itself a defined meaning which is far narrower than the word on its own would suggest. My understanding of the adjective ‘vulnerable’ wants it to have a larger meaning than that its defined use and it is this wider meaning that this blog post sets out to reclaim. In this post, I want to suggest that we need to find some way to articulate the truth that most human beings at some stages in their lives are vulnerable.

Before writing this post, I had a conversation with Chris on the phone, and he agreed with me that his story would suggest that he himself fitted into the category of someone who could be rightly described as vulnerable. To think about the adjective as it applies to his particular story, the word describes the way he was initially encouraged to see God as the answer to a number of personal and emotional issues, including his failures at school and lack of qualifications when young. His experience of illiteracy made him an extremely suggestible personality and thus he was attracted to the religious rhetoric he heard as well as to the confident personalities of Christian preachers. The word I have here used to replace ‘vulnerable’ is suggestible. It does not quite capture the same meaning, as vulnerable picks up better the emotional aspect of the tendency in an individual to follow a powerful piece of persuasion, whether religious or political. For Chris and others like him, this attachment resulted in a rollacoaster of feelings from elation followed by a sense overwhelming self-abasement and self-loathing. The Christianity that he heard was a Calvinist amalgam of threat and promise. It used his vulnerability to create hope but this quickly was followed feelings of fear and self-hatred. Chris was hooked by the promises of this faith but was then left traumatised by his internalisation of a harsh punishing God. No doubt we will be returning to this theme of the damage caused by ‘terror preaching’. Only a few of us have never heard it expounded, but Chris to some extent remains one of its victims.

The word ‘vulnerable’ is a word that needs to be reclaimed by those of us who are interested in the way that religion is sometimes taught and presented abusively. It is an adjective that describes, less the individual personality, but more the particular setting that he or she finds themselves in. I want to list now just three of the particular settings within people’s lives that render them vulnerable to an abusive version of Christianity. I will not describe them as vulnerable adults but as adults who pass through a period or state of vulnerability. One of these arguably happens to everyone, the other two are the result of economic and social events.

The first vulnerability that some experience is that of poverty. Although I was brought up in a home that, by modern standards, was lacking in many respects, we were never poor in terms of going short of food and clothing. The fact that I never had new clothes, but survived on hand-me-downs, was more a general feature of the 50s than any particular poverty within our family. I cannot claim to have known the sort of poverty that even today destroys hope and causes depression and despair. I can imagine that this kind of poverty would make me very vulnerable to promises to sort out the problems of despair.

The second vulnerability, the particular one that Chris faced, is the total powerlessness of leaving school without a proper grasp of literacy. In Chris’ case this problem has in fact been overcome, but for many it remains a lifelong blight. With such a handicap how do you discover whether a preacher is genuinely telling what the Bible has to say or whether he is reading extracts with the aim of manipulating you into attending his church? That powerlessness is also a path to inappropriate dependency to people who are more capable than you.

The third area of vulnerability, and this is probably one that few escape, is the period of transition from childhood into adulthood. There is a great deal to be said about the negotiation of a new independent identity following the years of dependence on others. Religious groups are good at exploiting this period of vulnerability for their own purposes, whether malignly or for the good of the young person. A faith, whether a cultic variety or more mainstream, provides support in this time of, often, chronic uncertainty. Space prevents me from saying any more on this point but the reader can no doubt reflect on the particular difficulties that he or she faced as they passed through this particular ravine of human experience.

I could easily add to my list of three ‘vulnerabilities’ that impact on the way that a individual is rendered more susceptible to the blandishments of religious teachers. Some of these may of course have deeply caring motives, but others, as this blog never tires of saying, have exploitation of the vulnerable high on their agenda. Let us always learn to be aware that human vulnerability is a fact of life, and that it is always immoral to take advantage in any way of another person who is in this state for whatever reason.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

16 thoughts on “Vulnerable adults -who are they?

  1. This is such an important discussion. I think a huge problem is the way that the “vulnerable adult” box, by being stigmatizing, acts as stigma does, to conceal the fact that everyone is vulnerable and would rather not acknowledge it. This is one of your tracks I think, and you are very right.

    This means that people are not encouraged to recognise and integrate their shadow side. They can say – I’m not vulnerable, I’m ok. It’s the vulnerable adult who’s vulnerable. This inability to face the truth causes many serious problems and is a major obstacle to spiritual growth. I’m glad to say that our new associate priest touched on this very helpfully in his first sermon this morning. His main message was that the Bible focusses on “fear not”, which links in to another big theme of this blog, and is the opposite of “terror preaching”.

    Another track you bring out is that each person varies in their degree of vulnerability, both at different times in their life and in different aspects or fields of their life. This is really an elaboration of what I’ve just said.

    The third point is that some people (eg rich or literate for example) are overall much more powerful, while others (eg poor or illiterate for example) are much more vulnerable. It is this imbalance of power that the “vulnerable adult” thing is trying to address helpfully, by saying that when people are weak they can need protection – and actually they can need special allowances made for them too. But it’s very difficult to get this right.

    The idea of calling people in receipt of “statutory care”, whatever that is (please explain) “vulnerable adults” is just shirking realities. This may now be CofE national policy, but we do have a much more helpful definition of this in our Diocesan policy, which elaborates the kind of thing I’m trying to say quite concisely but very sensibly.

    I personally am very aware of being both vulnerable and powerful, and seeing both the vulnerability and power of others, though of course I don’t always see it very clearly. I am a “vulnerable adult” I suppose, since I have a consultant psychiatrist and am on the books of the local mental health team, and there are times when my mental health is a disaster which certainly makes me extremely socially and emotionally vulnerable in a way that few people can imagine. However I reject the label, which I do regard as stigmatising, demeaning and undignified, ultimately because it is fundamentally a lie. I am a person who is gradually growing spiritually through my life and has moved from very severe disempowerment in many ways, to a place where I have developed my abilities and have obtained modest but real social roles, where I am acknowledged as useful and have some voice and power to affect and even to make decisions. This is without considering what I have done as a good enough and not perfect parent in bringing up two lovely and very high-flying children, and launching them as adults capable of making their way in the world. But of course I am still vulnerable too, in all sorts of ways.

    I am at a difficult point with my church on this at the moment. I shared in another post the bullying I recently witnessed in a meeting. The recipient was “vulnerable” in being a weaker personality, and this is just as real, and the abuse was just as real is if he had been classified as a “vulnerable adult”. But we have this boxed off as meaning something different, which means people are not encouraged to look at what is really happening.

    I came home from church this morning at a point of incandescent meltdown at the latest thing that has been sprung on the congregation, ultimately by the Rector, as an abuse of democratic process. One of the churchwardens lied to the choir about it in the choir vestry after the deputy director of music spoke up to express his dismay and encourage those who felt likewise to speak up too. Because I was in a position to know that it was a lie, I questioned her and she refused to answer me. I am about to run our annual meeting for the first time, and the can of worms just keeps opening up as a bottomless abyss. I have a plan for keeping my cool and working quietly in the coming months to get things back on track, but I lost my cool totally this morning. For the first time in 25 years I can seriously see the possibility that I may have to leave the church I love, if my plan doesn’t work at least to some extent. I am also employed by the church and the Rector is my boss, which puts me in an extremely vulnerable position indeed, especially when you consider that I can’t afford economically to lost my job, and that I know very realistically that my mental health history as well as other factors such my age and remote location would make it very hard for me to get any other employment at all, and certainly not something I would be committed to in the same way. Please pray for me.

  2. Excellent Stephen, This is to me one of the greatest challanges ever to be faced up to by ‘The Church’?
    I remain very depressed about the jungle like wilderness many are in post this type of trauma. Chris

    1. Thanks Chris

      Proverbs 15.8
      The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord,
      but the prayer of the upright is his delight.

  3. I think what I mean by statutory care is care provided by a professional institution or person. That is is opposed to care of an informal kind. I had not really thought about the phrase. As to all the other material you bring up, there is so much that I am not sure where to begin. Two points I note. One is that I agree with you that being ‘vulnerable’ may mean that you are in disagreement or conflict with a strong person and you are the weaker of the two. The second point you raise is the tragic situation of having mental illness in your past which people know about and can resurrect at any point when they wish. A thousand word reflection will never unpack all these permutations but clearly this whole subject needs revisiting several times. Your last paragraph links a point from my previous post about the power and management of volunteers. That too needs much more treatment. Because I write short manageable reflections on these issues I have to leave a lot out. But haiku I genuinely feel for the situation you outline. Lying by church people is a very serious matter and ought to be impossible. Because it is not supposed to happen, it is very hard to challenge. I shall pray that the Rector gets a true perspective on what is going on and does not take an easy convenient line as a way of dealing with it. I shall also remember you that you come out safely through this particular crisis. From your posts before I feel that your Rector is not a totally unreasonable man and that he will want to do the right thing, even if he is also capable of blindness and sometimes acts wrongly under pressure. Let us know how it transpires. It is clear that the talk of vulnerability has opened up deep issues, possibly for others as well.

  4. Dear Stephen, thank you for your kind reply. I totally understand you can’t provide the answer to the universe and everything in one manageable post!

    A few points. What I meant to indicate is that all of us are the recipients of professional care in one way or another. We all have GPs! So a distinction is being made in practice about people who receive some kinds of care and not others. Once you start thinking this through there are some big issues that open up.

    On a personal level, if I only had to worry about mental illness in the maybe distant past, life would be a lot easier…. I am always facing the likelihood that I may continue to have problems from time to time in the future. I have to live with it and so do those around me. There are a lot of people in this situation. One of the things the church has done for me is to be a place where these problems are to a surprisingly large extent accepted. That is worth so much.

    I agree completely that I find lying extremely difficult to cope with. In this case today, it seems it *may* have been a mistake as much as a lie (I have talked to one or two people since my last comment). But it’s not only about lying. It’s about manipulation, lack of consultation, disregard for the way things should be done, and treating others with contempt. It’s about the way the lay contribution to the leadership of our church is an f***ing disaster. I don’t know how to put this strongly enough, since I too haven’t got space to go into chapter and verse. I see how it has hurt me over the years, and I see how it hurts other individuals, and I see how it hurts and weakens the church as a whole. And I see that the present Rector is making a number of serious mistakes – charitably I hope this is mainly a result of her inexperience and insecurity as a leader, which is another way of saying I don’t think she understands what she is doing wrong or why it matters. But at the same time, there are all the rest of us in the church pulling in all our different directions, and there are some lay leaders who are not making good contributions all the time by any means. And many people seem to just take the poor institutional culture of the church for granted as the way things ever have been and ever shall be.

    However I find that as I prepare to try to change things, I discover people here and there who are thrilled at new possibilities opening up. I talk to a person I greatly respect, and find he has been privately thinking the same things. There is hope. I love the church for real reasons, it’s not a basket-case church like some of the ones you describe. The Rector is a good person and I like her a lot; she has many strong points and I am loyal to her and respect her; but I need to turn my disillusion with the way things are going wrong – much of which is down to the church culture of decades, and only some of which is down to her – into positive action for improvement. I am hopeful that things can get better, and I will be able to face the need to be realistic about life and not expect perfection, and still continue to find the church a nourishing spiritual home for me. If however my efforts result in no improvement, I can see the desperate possibility of deciding that I can’t stand it any longer. In so far as we are encouraged to see the Body of Christ as “like a family” and even the church as a mother, it would be painful like disowning your natural parents because they won’t stop abusing you and infantilising you. This is a really drastic step and I would lose so much, because there are great people I know in the church, I would lose roles that are worth a lot to me, and where would I go for the worship that is an essential part of my spiritual life? But who knows. Maybe sometimes you do have to leave the home that has been important for a long time. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to move on. I find in several important other ways at this point in my life too that change and renewal is in the air, I can’t just keep chugging on with the comfy ideas and ways I have got used to over the years, and God still seems to be expecting me to learn things and change without knowing where he is taking me, rather than just coast towards retirement and death.

  5. The previous CofE document Promoting a Safe Church 2006 recognised that there was a problem with the concept of “vulnerable adult” and tried to deal with it like this:

    “Society is recognizing that people are being harmed when they are vulnerable for various reasons whether permanently or on a temporary
    basis and this abuse can take place in their own homes, in residential care, at work or in other activities including those provided by the Church. Some adults,who do not see themselves as ‘vulnerable’ under our working definition, may still find themselves exploited, bullied or abused. The safeguarding of adults … There is a particular responsibility for members of the Church to ensure that all people are treated with respect and that any complaints against church workers [this includes clergy, staff and volunteers] are dealt with promptly and fairly. …
    Human beings are, by their very nature, subject to the chances and changes of this world. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, capacities and restrictions. At some time everyone will be vulnerable to a wide range of pressures, concerns or dangers. No one is invulnerable’; some people may consider themselves to be strong but, when circumstances change, strengths can quickly disappear. Some people by reason of their physical or social circumstances have higher levels of vulnerability than others. It is the Christian duty of everyone to recognize and support those who are identified as being more vulnerable. In supporting a vulnerable person we must do so with compassion and in a way that maintains dignity. Vulnerability is not an absolute; an individual cannot be labelled as ‘vulnerable’ in the same way as a child is regarded as such. Childhood is absolute:someone who is not yet eighteen years of age is, in the eyes of the law, a child; this is not the case with vulnerability. Some of the factors that increase vulnerability include:
    a sensory or physical disability or impairment; ● a learning disability; ● a physical illness; ● mental ill health (including dementia), chronic or acute; ● an addiction to alcohol or drugs; ● the failing faculties in old age; ● a permanent or temporary reduction in physical, mental or emotional capacity brought about by life events, for example bereavement or previous abuse or trauma.”

    Very significant is the statement that an “individual” [ie adult!] cannot be labelled as vulnerable in the same way as a child is regarded as such”. However everyone cheerfully ignores this in practice. Just as this document makes big gestures towards the range of what “abuse” can mean, but in reality it is driven by the fear of sexual abuse which governs its intentions and priorities to the exclusion of much else. Equally significant therefore is the inadequacy of the list of vulnerability factors, which confuses vulnerability with “disability” and totally ignores the massive importance of a whole range of socio-economic factors, such as the poverty and literacy issues which Chris draws attention to. Though in other parts of the document issues of bullying and what is quaintly referred to as “less serious matters such as inappropriate behaviour or attitude not amounting to abuse” are briefly mentioned. The inadequacy of policies to deal with such a significant aspect of human life is very apparent.

  6. Thank you for all this. This topic is obviously one that touches you deeply, while in my case I just get mildly irritated at the way that church authorities seem to miss the vulnerability of many, many people on the grounds that they are over 18. The crucial term in the C of E/Methodist document is ‘regulated activity’ which I rendered rather loosely as ‘statutory care’. The idea seems to be that the vulnerable person is in receipt of something from the ‘system’, rather than just having to cope with some disability. This whole discussion arises from my conviction that most people in the categroiues mention in my piece are extremely vulnerable to the malign blandishments of dodgy groups, including the cults. We need to retain the word to be able to describe what is going on in these situations. Thank you for filling out the discussion, both factually and personally.

    1. yes – nothing I say is meant to detract from awareness of the many vulnerabilities of adults, sometimes very severe, and that protections are needed. Also, although the law tends to be a bit black and white in deciding that adults either do or do not have “capacity” to make their own decisions, in reality it’s a very complex area for example when you think of people falling prey to malign blandishments. This ties in with my critique of the false simplicities and stigma that are the negative side of labels.

      I think that the most important point that I’ve clarified for myself out of this discussion is that vulnerability and disability must not be confused, and this is generally what these well-meaning policies tend to do. The two things are often linked – disabilities often entail vulnerabilities, sometimes extreme. But they are not the same. The most important virtue in our faith is love, and love necessarily entails vulnerability, but love is not a disability. And love is also a strength…

  7. Dear haiku, I typed out a large post, and it wouldn’t go. So I won’t do another, but I will pray for you.

    1. 🙂 I’m feeling stronger today. I got very good support from my spiritual director yesterday. And I remembered that God and prayer is what it’s about, especially when loving your neighbour presents challenges.

      1. Of course. But I often remember a quote from the musical “Kismet”! The terribly serious Caliph (tenor) has fallen in love with the peasant’s daughter Anne Blyth (soprano), and says it is “His will”. “Who’s will”, she asks, “Allah’s will”, comes the reply. “Oh, excellent references. Do you have any others, more local?” And that’s the trouble, God sometimes seems not very local. We need people, and we can be hurt by people. Glad you’re feeling better, if not better!

        1. yes we need people and can be hurt by them. precisely. Yes sometimes God seems very distant, so it’s helpful when I realise anew the fact that a strong relationship with God keeps me alive and going in the right direction. I’m not saying that’s instead of dealing with people, or that I can use my idea of “his will” as a shortcut in various ways. I’m saying it’s helpful for me to remember that I rest in him, and he is my strength and salvation. And specially when I am in serious and distressing conflict with some people around me, Psalm 118
          5 Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
          the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.
          6 With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
          What can mortals do to me?
          7 The Lord is on my side to help me;
          I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
          8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
          than to put confidence in mortals.
          9 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
          than to put confidence in princes.

          – or priests, or bosses, or doctors or politicians, or any of those supposedly powerful and important leaders in life who look for your trust, admiration and obedience,

          promising all sorts of rewards in return, but which they so often renege on or were falsely promising things they can’t deliver in the first place,

          and threatening all sorts of (sometimes veiled) disasters and punishments if you don’t stay in line – some of which punishments they can inflict, others of which are just an aura of menace that you have to learn to see through and not be afraid of.

          Back to square one – put your trust in God not mortals or princes, and don’t be afraid.

          This doesn’t mean I’m ignoring the lifeboats God sends me, if you understand the reference to that sermon illustration! I’m using all my networks, trusted friends and wise counsellors, including this blog!, to gain the support, ideas and information I need to handle the problems as well as I can.

            1. It happens to me when I use the library. Or when my husband has cleaned out the cookie jar! Strength to your elbow, sis.

  8. Standards like this are a starting place, and I always think of them as generalizations. I think of Tocqueville’s commentary on the US and his statement that America will be great so long as we can remain good. And there’s the rub. The best of standards can be used well or misused and turned into something never intended. We are all vulnerable to that. Stephen, I chuckled at your comment about feeling “mildly irritated” with the definition. The best standards of pastoral care applied appropriately are still dependent on good critical thinking and a tender heart. I think that the tender heart factor is far too lacking in the world. I’m encouraged to see it at work here on Surviving Church.

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