Teenagers & child protection…

A neglected group?

Child protection is a tricky thing. It’s a complex and troubling problem for those dealing with it.

Despite our best efforts, there’s one group of children who still get a rum deal…

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Nagy-Bagoly Ilona (adapted)

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Nagy-Bagoly Ilona (adapted)

Safeguarding teenagers…

I’m just going to come right out and say it – teenagers too often get a rough deal from child protection services.

And it’s just not right!

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Now I know that child protection is a hugely challenging area. That’s a given. I’ve done it and have huge sympathy with those working in tough conditions on limited budgets.

It should also be said that on top of all this the current climate of austerity massively hampers the ability to respond to some children.

But the issue stands that there is differential treatment of teenagers when it comes to safeguarding.

So what are the issues?…

Here are a few examples of where things go amiss for young people at risk:

  • Diluting risk – a 14 year old girl who is absconding, spending time with unsafe adults, staying away overnight in undisclosed locations, turning up with unexplained amounts of money, her parent is lying to the Police about her whereabouts and welfare – and on it goes. Children’s services did… nothing. This sounds like an extreme example, but in my experience, it isn’t. There are clear risks – not least of CSE – but the age of the child means services sometimes don’t respond as they should.
  • Accommodation – unlike younger children, teenagers have the option to vote with their feet. When the going gets difficult at home, they can leave. And they do. This brings all sorts of other issues, like:
    • A lack of safe and supportive alternative accommodation
    • The reliance, too often, on bed and breakfast options
    • The assumption that teenagers can live alone safely and healthily
  • Self-determination – because teenagers have a level of maturity, there’s an assumption that they can make appropriate, safe decisions for themselves. A common mantra amongst some professionals is, “S/he knows what s/he wants and s/he won’t comply with anything we recommend.” This is then used as a reason to do nothing. Or very little.

I’m sure you guys can think of similar situations where teenagers slip between the stools and don’t attract the safeguarding response they need…

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How can we help?…

Here are a few suggestions about how we can begin to help keep teenagers safe:

  • Risk first, age second – in my view the age of the young person too often distracts from the very real risk issues. So I would encourage CP professionals to think through the situation separately from the age of the child. Identify the potential risks, then consider how the age of the young person mitigates or aggravates these. Doing it this way around may safeguard against the tendency to assume a lack of risk because the child is a teenager.
  • Change of language – I always talk about the client being a “child.” Even when they are a teenager. Whilst using the term “young person” is appropriate for lots of reasons – not least in affording teenagers the respect their age deserves – it can be a distraction. They are still a child. Using this term can help focus attention on the reality – that this is a child who may need our protection.
  • Parent focus – whilst teenagers have views and these need to be very much borne in mind, parents still have responsibilities. Most of the safeguarding problems I come across have direct links with the way a young person has been parented – directly or indirectly. Appealing to – or challenging – the parent/s can ensure we focus on the things that are influencing the presence of risk.
  • Behaviour as a symptoms – when teenagers’ own behaviour poses a risk, this can become the focus. I believe this often distracts us from the real issue: why this behaviour emerged in the first place. Essentially this comes down to assessment. The question is NOT about how the child behaves; it’s about WHY they behave this way. This takes us to the root problems. Address these and the behaviour will often fall into greater balance and safety.
  • Assess risk properly – there is a huge amount of talk about risk these days. All too often it’s about risk to agencies or professionals. We cover our backs or our budgets at the expense of safe and effective practice. But risk isn’t that complicated – read more here. If we think clearly about the risks to teenagers, we can respond more appropriately and protect them more effectively.

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Final word…

The basic issue here is that age often distracts from need. Risks exist and may even be imminent, but the fact that the child is a teenager means agencies often do less. Or nothing at all.

The underlying assumption is that teenagers are necessarily less “at risk” than younger children. This isn’t acceptable. Because they aren’t.

If we really want to avoid more scandals like Rotherham, we must address the child protection issues around teenagers…

What do you think?…

  • What are your experiences of child protection with teenagers? Where can we do a better job at keeping young people safe?
  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2016



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Hedgehog

    An interesting comment, thank you. As an adopter of a now adult child, and in networking with other adopters, it can often feel as though adoptive parents are ‘blamed’ for poor parenting resulting in risk taking rather than acknowledging the impact of neglect and trauma in the early years before adoption. A greater acknowledgement of the challenges of adoption and that we know our children would help formulate sustainable plans in partnership.

    In the early days of placement we are so often told to think toddler, even when chronologically they are well beyond that. However for many professionals supporting us when they hit mid teens they are suddenly deemed competent and able to make decisions which many acknowledge will place them at high risk. it is ’empowering’ them apparently!

    • jonnymatthew

      I couldn’t agree more! The physical size of the young person so easily distracts from their developmental needs, which often lag way behind their age. It’s really important from professionals – especially those in child protection – to remember this and deal with the actual child (development) not the chronological child (age).

      I wish you well in your parenting endeavours – I know the feeling! :0) Thanks for commenting! Cheers, Jonny.