It’s a phrase you often see in discussions about the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and jobs which require some degree of police checking – “children and vulnerable adults”. The definition of a child is fairly clear cut and is accepted as being anyone under the age of 18. But what type of people are classed as vulnerable adults?


When talking about who falls into the category of vulnerable adult, medical professionals often mention capacity. In these cases, capacity means the ability to understand and remember what is happening to you, and consider actions and consequences. Someone might lack capacity on a temporary basis if they are seriously ill or unconscious, may gradually lose capacity through illnesses such as dementia, or may have learning difficulties which mean that their ability to understand and reason has always been impaired. Determining whether someone has the capacity to understand their treatment and take charge of their own care is not always straightforward and usually social workers, doctors and psychiatrists will come together to make the decision. People who lack capacity may have an appointed person to speak on their behalf, or have someone appointed with power of attorney to manage their finances, complete forms and deal with the medical profession.


Vulnerability may also include patients who have no mental impairments, whatever their age. Patients who are deaf, blind or who have another sort of disability might also fall into the vulnerable category depending on how much their condition affects them. Again, people may become vulnerable and infirm for short periods due to an acute illness, or gradually become more infirm through a progressive illness or old age. Someone who is infirm will struggle with a basic daily routine such as showering, dressing or cooking meals.

Dealing With Vulnerable People

Carers, social workers and other professionals working with people who are vulnerable have to be checked through the Disclosure and Barring Service. This is done to protect the vulnerable adults from people whose past indicates that they may be a risk. When DBS checks are done, the same criteria is applied whatever the role – the DBS does not do one set of checks for those working with adults and one set for those working with children. In Scotland, there is no distinction between children and vulnerable adults, the system for checking is called “protecting vulnerable groups”.

Vulnerable Groups and Police Records

Many workers think that any police record at all is going to rule them out from working with vulnerable adults but this is not the case. Employers will make the decision about whether or not to employ a candidate based on many different factors. A particularly strong candidate with years of experience and wonderful references may find that a minor charge of shoplifting or getting into a drunken fight might not count against them. However, someone with a more extensive criminal past, especially people with crimes involving dishonesty or sexual offences is unlikely to be employed at all.