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Defining a Vulnerable Adult

Apply for a DBS Check

It’s one of those phrases you often hear trotted out when discussing DBS checks, PVG checks in Scotland or AccessNI checks in Northern Ireland – “children and vulnerable adults”. It’s easy to define clearly what a child is, and in the UK the accepted definition is anyone under the age of 18. Defining a vulnerable adult is trickier though, and there are lists of criteria to help employers and workers decide whether the “vulnerable” description fits or not.



Isn’t it just age and disability?

Until recently, the definition of a vulnerable adult was very clear and referred to someone who was either very elderly or disabled. However, this definition isn’t particularly broad, and doesn’t take into account other groups of people who might find themselves classed as vulnerable for other reasons, or even temporarily due to a medical condition. The NHS has perhaps the best way of defining what a vulnerable adult is and talks about people “who for any reason is unable to take care of themselves” or “protect themselves from exploitation”. That definition neatly wraps up people who are elderly or have a disability, but also people in different categories too.



The concept of capacity is often confused with the definition of a vulnerable adult, and although there is some crossover between the two, there are not the same thing. Capacity is about understanding what is happening and the consequences of actions and having the cognitive ability to talk to carers or medical professionals about treatment and to make decisions. Someone who is lacking capacity through illness, old age or through a condition such as dementia is by default, a vulnerable adult. However, someone who is defined as a vulnerable adult because they have difficulty in caring for themselves may not be lacking in capacity. Every person has to be considered on an individual basis. People who are termed as vulnerable might:

  • Have a learning disability
  • Have mental health problems
  • Have substance misuse problems
  • Have a long term illness or chronic condition
  • Have a physical disability.


Working with Vulnerable Adults

Anyone who is working with vulnerable adults on a regular basis will require a DBS check. There are lots of different occupations which this might apply to, most in the healthcare profession but also related occupations like carers or staff at day centres or who deliver meals on wheels. Enhanced disclosures – the most detailed type of check – is required for workers who are having direct contact with vulnerable adults. An enhanced check will show up a higher level of detail in terms of convictions and cautions in the past but having a criminal record will not necessarily bar you from getting a job in this sector. Employers will consider the nature of the role and what information has been flagged up by your DBS check, and decide whether they wish to employ you or not.

If you are applying for a job working with vulnerable adults and know that your DBS might indicate some minor brushes with the law, it’s usually better to discuss this in person at the interview stage.