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Abuse of Vulnerable Adults: Why Does it Happen?

Abuse of Vulnerable Adults: Why Does it Happen?Researchers believe that society is more willing to report, talk about and act on allegations of the abuse of vulnerable adults. Over the last two years, the number of reports of abuse has risen by almost two percent, according to statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre in Leeds, England.

Although it is impossible to determine whether this marks a real increase in adult abuse, or simply an increase in reporting, there are reasons to suggest that the latter may be more likely.

Statisticians agree that adults aged 65 or over are the group most likely to be abused; women are more likely to be abused than men. Adults with a physical disability, though less vulnerable than the elderly, pose another significant risk group.

While reporting is on the rise, there is still much abuse that goes undetected, unreported and ultimately unpunished. Signs of abuse frequently go undetected by professionals with inadequate training. However, researchers agree that the quality and detail of reporting is improving, which may lead to higher detection of abuse.

It is important to state that while the number of reported cases of abuse is rising, it is impossible to tell whether this is due to a real increase in abuse, better detection of abuse, or an increased willingness to report abuse. One study suggests that as few as one in 14 cases of elder abuse come to the attention of the authorities.

At the same time that the reporting of abuse is on the rise, “there is growing consensus about the importance of everyone with an interest in adult care services making efforts to prevent abuse of vulnerable adults,” according to Alison Faulkner of the Social Care Institute for Excellence in London, England.

Vulnerable adults often find it difficult to self-report abuse, though there is a greater willingness to self-report financial abuse compared to any other form of abuse. According to research, instances of physical abuse and neglect are more likely than instances of financial or emotional abuse. Comparatively few allegations of sexual abuse were substantiated last year, though the potential for this type of abuse occurring should not be ignored by policy makers.

Not all abuse is intentional. Abuse is defined as intended actions that cause harm or a serious risk of harm, whether or not harm was intended. Inadequate training can result in unintentional abuse. Residential care staff who are unaware how to properly lift and support elderly people can inadvertently cause bruises, falls and other injuries. Family members often take on intensely strenuous caring role with little to no training.

Abuse was found to be more likely to take place in the vulnerable adult’s own home than in a residential care setting. One possible explanation for this trend is that social care workers making home visits generally receive less peer assistance and supervision than those who work in a residential setting.

It is a widely held misconception that family members and partners are rarely responsible for elder abuse. The National Center on Elder Abuse in Orange, Calif., reports that in the U.S., an estimated 90 percent of elder abuse is perpetrated by a family member or spouse. In the U.K., abuse of a vulnerable adult is more likely to be committed by a social care worker than a family member, but only slightly. A small, yet still significant amount of abuse is committed by one vulnerable adult on another.

Caring is a demanding profession that takes a toll on carers both physically and emotionally. Recent reports suggest that a carer is more than twice as likely as a non-carer to suffer from some kind of health problem.

Potential red flags in social care workers include financial problems, a history of violent behavior and substance abuse. Those who feel burdened by the responsibilities of caring also are more likely to abuse.

Carers who are completely dependent on a vulnerable adult for their finances are more likely to commit abuse than those with more financial stability. This includes family members and partners who are also carers.

All individuals, including vulnerable adults, have the right to a life free from abuse. Abuse has a serious impact on the quality of life of those who suffer it. Vulnerable adults who are abused die sooner that adults who do not suffer from abuse.

While the reporting of abuse may be on the rise, effective, affordable solutions are also more readily available than before. The prevention of abuse does not mean being over-protective.

According to Angela Sweeny, simple measures such as “training … vulnerable adults and staff on abuse in order to recognize and respond to abuse” are effective. Training should not only be available for professional carers, but also family members and partners who are carers, as well as other vulnerable adults. The abuse of vulnerable adults is preventable, not inevitable.


Under the Radar: New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study (2011). Lifespan of Greater Rochester, Inc., Weill Cornell Medical Center of Cornell University & New York City Department for the Aging.

Abuse of Vulnerable Adults: Why Does it Happen?

Keir McDonald, MBE

Keir McDonald MBE and his team at EduCare have developed an online learning program on the subject of Child Protection and Safeguarding. EduCare’s Child Protection training is designed for anyone who comes into contact with children and young people through their work or voluntary activities. The program covers the fundamentals of child protection in education, social care, sport and leisure. It's one of a range of online learning programs developed by EduCare (, who also cover child neglect, safer recruitment, health and safety, equality and diversity.

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APA Reference
McDonald, K. (2018). Abuse of Vulnerable Adults: Why Does it Happen?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 3 Oct 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.