Tags: Child protection | Child Protection & Safeguarding | Child Protection Coordinator | Head of Year

Are child protection referrals for 16-year-olds being accepted in your local authority? Jenni Whitehead examines the increasing difficulty experienced by schools in getting social care to accept child protection referrals for the older child

All childcare law defines children as people aged between 0 and 18, child protection guidance for education offers the same definition and the latest edition of Working Together to Safeguard Children also refers to this age bracket. So why are schools finding it increasingly hard to make sure their concerns for older young people are taken seriously?

Intervention under section 47

Section 47 referred to here is a section of the Children Act 1989. Section 47 gives children’s social care departments legal powers to make statutory interventions in the form of investigations where there is a concern that a child/young person is likely to suffer significant harm through abuse. This investigation is carried out on behalf of the local authority for the protection of children.

Intervention under section 17

Under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 children’s social care are expected to offer a social service to children whom are assessed as being in need. Social care may offer a service themselves or may support the family in gaining access to appropriate services, the offer of a service under section 17 is subject to the parents’ agreement. One of our Connexions personal advisers asked to discuss a case with me recently. A 16-year-old South Asian girl had reported that her father had been physically and emotionally abusing her. The girl had started making friends with a group of young women that her father disapproved of. His disapproval was about how westernised his daughter’s friends were and he feared that she would move away from her Asian culture and traditions. The girl told her worker that he had repeatedly threatened to send her home (Pakistan), where his family would ‘sort her out’. Recently his verbal attacks had developed into physical assaults including him dragging her out of the bathroom by her hair and locking her in her bedroom.

A child protection or child in need case?

The Connexions adviser had tried to make a referral to social care under child protection procedures and was very concerned that the referral was not taken on as child protection. ‘There is clear evidence of emotional and physical abuse and she thinks if she was sent back home it would be to get married.’ The social worker that she spoke to had suggested that the case was one of parental adolescent conflict and should therefore be viewed as a children in need case and the worker was asked if she had spoken to the girl’s parents, to get their side of the story and to ask their consent before making the referral. This case raises a number of issues:

  • It may be agreed that there is considerable conflict between father and daughter but in this case the conflict has, on more than one occasion, spilled over into violence, so why would it not warrant a section 47 investigation? There is no legal argument that would support the view that section 47 investigations cannot be applied to young people who are 16.
  • Most 16-year-olds would be viewed as Frazer competent so why would consent be sought from the parents? Presumably to get the parents to agree to work with whatever service was on offer. The suggestion that the worker approach parents for consent gives clear indication that the social worker did not think statutory intervention was either viable or necessary.
  • While a 16-year-old may be capable of making the decision to report abuse or not they are still likely to need the full support of a statutory agency to stop the abuse occurring.

If social care are not willing to accept a child protection referral in a case such as this where could the worker and young person go for help? The police may be willing to intervene but this would require the young person to make a complaint about her own father, a daunting task for any child. A section 47 investigation would take the onus of complaint off the child and place it on the local authority. Also, in this case, the young person has expressed a concern that her father’s saying he would send her home is a thinly veiled threat of forced marriage. The guidance on managing cases of young people at risk of forced marriage makes it clear that education staff should not make attempts to act as intermediary between child and parent but should follow child protection procedures, which is exactly what the worker was trying to do. This is not an isolated case: I have had a number of discussions with school child protection named persons that have raised the same issues. It is as though once the young person is 16 they are expected to be able to manage abuse themselves or leave the situation where the abuse is occurring, usually their family home. Managing the abuse themselves is particularly difficult for young people. Many of those who suffer significant harm will have been subjected to abuse from an earlier age, and unfortunately many of them learn to cope, putting up with the abuse rather than managing it in any way that would stop it happening. In effect they accommodate to the abuse, taking on the view of themselves as deserving of it. This view is compounded by their age and other people’s view that at their age they should have been able to manage or avoid it. Should the label ‘parent/adolescent conflict’ be given to situations where the parent uses violence as a means to assert control? I doubt anybody would agree to that and yet I have heard this label used in many cases involving violence and it is usually being used to minimise the significance of  a parent’s use of violence. Nobody would find it acceptable if workers minimised domestic violence between partners in the same way. Part of the problem is, I suggest, is that teenage years are almost expected to be problematic, parents are seen as almost bound to have some level of difficulty in controlling their older offspring. There is a tendency to be more understanding of the parent who loses control with a teenager than the parent that loses it with a small child. Recently a named person asked me if it was true that a child over the age of 16 could not be registered as ‘at risk of significant harm’. Again there is nothing in the guidance that states a young person of this age cannot have their name put on the register, but my experience tells me that it rarely occurs.

Filling the gap

If children’s social care services are not able or willing to accept referrals for young people of 16 and above, should we refer such cases to the local authority vulnerable adults protection services? Well this wouldn’t work either because services for vulnerable adults are only offered to those young people 18 and above. So what is becoming more and more apparent is a gap in service provision for those between 16 and 18 and a growing expectation that schools will in some way fill this gap. Schools have of course gone a long way in developing support services for young people and this work is expanding through extended schools services. However, extended services are not equipped to make the statutory interventions that cases of child abuse require and would be expected to pass on concerns to children’s social care. I am not suggesting that the decision to intervene on a statutory basis is easy in cases where the young person is over 16. Neither am I suggesting that all cases of parent/adolescent conflict should be viewed within a child protection framework. I am suggesting, however, that abuse of young people between 16 and 18 should be taken just as seriously as it is in respect of younger children. Schools need to continue making child protection referrals on behalf of the older young person. Trust your own professional judgement; if you believe that a young person is being subjected to abuse report it, and carry on reporting it each time something else happens. Do not fall into the trap of thinking, ‘I won’t bother reporting again because nobody reacted last time.’ Education staff cannot be criticised for the behaviour of another agency, but they can be criticised for not sharing their concerns about possible abuse. My hope is that as more and more local authorities develop integrated services and locality-based multi-agency teams, professionals from different agencies will come to recognise each other’s difficulties in managing situations where no one agency seems willing to take control over and responsibility for older young people’s complaints of abuse. We will develop, I hope, shared responsibility for all children and young people. However, at the moment our legal duty is to continue to report our concerns regarding possible abuse to children’s social care and we must continue to do so.

This article first appeared in Primary Headship – Jun 2007

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