Identifying Signs of Abuse and Neglect in Safeguarding

Signs of Abuse and Neglect in Safeguarding

The Care Act 2014 identifies ten types of abuse and neglect that can cause harm. Recognising the signs  of abuse and neglect in safeguarding is crucial in keeping vulnerable individuals from harm. The more familiar you are with an individual, the more likely you are to notice changes that might indicate abuse or neglect. However, even in short-term care settings, it is essential to be vigilant. Abuse and neglect can occur as one-off incidents or patterns over time, affecting one or multiple individuals. Here, we explore the different types of abuse and their indicators.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse involves injury or harm to an individual’s body, including assault, hitting, slapping, pushing, or misuse of restrictive practices. Signs of physical abuse include unexplained injuries or untreated wounds, multiple injuries at different stages of healing, broken bones, bruises, hair loss, bite marks, burns, or scalds.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is any incident of threatening behaviour, violence, or abuse between intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality. This includes psychological, physical, sexual, financial, and emotional abuse, as well as ‘honour-based’ violence. Signs of domestic violence can be any indicators related to other types of abuse, reflecting the varied forms domestic violence can take.

Modern Slavery

Modern slavery encompasses slavery, human trafficking, forced labour, and domestic servitude. Individuals are coerced, deceived, or forced into a life of abuse and inhumane treatment. Indicators of modern slavery include signs of physical or psychological abuse, malnourishment, poor hygiene, appearing withdrawn, rarely travelling alone, being under the control of others, having few personal belongings or identification documents, avoiding eye contact, and appearing frightened or reluctant to speak.

Financial or Material Abuse

Financial or material abuse involves unauthorised use of a person’s funds or belongings, including theft, fraud, coercion regarding financial affairs, and misuse of property or benefits. Signs include unpaid bills, loss of assets such as money disappearing after a house sale, expenditure not matching living conditions, and insufficient food or clothing.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse involves a person being forced or coerced into unwanted sexual activities. This includes rape, harassment, inappropriate touching, and exposure to sexual acts or materials. Indicators of sexual abuse are pain, sores, or bruising in genital, anal, or breast areas, bloodstained underwear, discomfort in walking or sitting, and sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy in individuals unable to consent.


Neglect is the failure to meet an individual’s basic needs, including medical, emotional, or physical care, and access to essential services. Indicators of neglect are malnutrition, dehydration, bedsores, dirty clothing and bedding, and incorrect medication dosage.


Self-neglect involves a person’s failure to care for their own basic needs, including personal hygiene, health, or surroundings. Indicators of self-neglect are similar to those of neglect: malnutrition, dehydration, poor hygiene, and medication mismanagement.

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse leads to feelings of worthlessness, unloved, or uncared for. It includes emotional abuse, threats, deprivation of contact, humiliation, intimidation, and isolation. Signs of psychological abuse are anxiety, lack of confidence, low self-esteem, and disturbed sleep patterns.

Organisational Abuse

Organisational abuse occurs within care settings when the needs of individuals are ignored in favour of organisational routines and procedures. This includes poor care standards, neglect, and misuse of medication. Signs include uniformity in care without consideration of individual needs, disregard for privacy and personal dignity, and poor living conditions.

Discriminatory Abuse

Discriminatory abuse involves unequal treatment based on race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, or religion. It includes harassment, slurs, or similar treatment. Indicators of discriminatory abuse are exclusion from activities or services, verbal abuse or derogatory remarks, and unequal treatment compared to others.

Missing the Signs of Neglect and Abuse in Safeguarding

The signs of neglect and abuse in safeguarding can be difficult to spot for several reasons. Abuse and neglect are often subtle and not always immediately visible. Perpetrators may go to great lengths to conceal their actions, making it harder for others to detect the abuse. Victims themselves might also hide signs of abuse out of fear, shame, or coercion.

Signs of abuse and neglect can vary widely among individuals and situations. For example, bruises or injuries might be attributed to accidents or clumsiness, especially in older adults or those with certain medical conditions. Emotional and psychological abuse often lacks physical evidence, making it even more challenging to identify.

Victims may not always recognize or admit they are being abused or neglected. They might normalise the behaviour due to prolonged exposure or manipulation by the abuser. Fear of repercussions, dependency on the abuser, or a lack of understanding about their rights can prevent victims from speaking out.

In workplaces where care and support are short-term or in environments with high staff turnover, building a rapport with individuals and noticing changes in their behaviour or physical condition can be difficult. This makes it harder for caregivers to identify signs of abuse or neglect promptly.

Symptoms of abuse and neglect can be misinterpreted as signs of ageing, illness, or disability. For instance, weight loss might be seen as a health issue rather than a sign of malnutrition due to neglect. Similarly, psychological signs like anxiety or depression could be attributed to pre-existing mental health conditions.

Care assistants and professionals may lack the training to recognise the diverse and sometimes subtle indicators of abuse and neglect. Without proper education and awareness, even well-meaning individuals might overlook critical signs.

In cases of domestic violence or financial abuse, complex emotional and financial dependencies between the victim and the abuser can obscure the signs. The victim may feel conflicted about the relationship, which can lead to mixed signals and difficulties in recognizing or admitting the abuse.

Abuse and neglect often occur as patterns over time rather than isolated incidents. Detecting these patterns requires consistent monitoring and an understanding of the individual’s usual behaviour and circumstances, which can be challenging in busy or understaffed care settings.

Cultural and social factors can influence how signs of abuse and neglect in safeguarding are perceived and reported. In some cultures, there may be a higher tolerance for certain behaviours, or discussing abuse might be taboo. Social isolation can also limit the opportunities for others to observe and intervene.

Recognizing the signs of neglect and abuse requires vigilance, education, and a compassionate approach to caregiving. Understanding the complexities and subtleties involved can help care assistants and professionals better protect vulnerable individuals.

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