Research: safeguarding older children at risk of serious harm

(pictured: Professionals did not always perceive standard safeguarding processes as suitable for dealing with older children. Credit: Alamy)

A study has addressed the gap in literature on 11- to 17-year-olds exposed to maltreatment. Karen Broadhurst reviews the findings

KEY WORDS: maltreatment adolescents parenting

AUTHORS: Gwyther Rees, Sarah Gorin, Alison Jobe, Mike Stein, Ros Medforth and Haridhan Goswami

Title: Safeguarding Young People: Responding to young people aged 11 to 17 who are maltreated. Published online by the Children’s Society

Aim: To improve protective responses for young people aged 11 to 17 in policy and practice arenas.

Methodology: A three-and-a-half year study consisted of four linked components: a literature review, a policy study, a survey of professionals and a study of practice.

Conclusion: The study underscores the importance of adopting a developmental perspective to the issue of child maltreatment. Many key issues are raised, including the potential for referrers and social care professionals to underestimate the risks of long-term negative outcomes for young people in cases of maltreatment. Moreover, self-reports of child maltreatment are likely to be far lower than actual rates.


In policy and practice arenas, there is substantial coverage of the maltreatment of young children. However, the cases of those aged 11 to 17 who have either experienced maltreatment or are at risk of significant harm, have received far less attention.

This study, arising from work undertaken by the Children’s Society, NSPCC and the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York, sought to address this gap in the literature through a mixed method project exploring young people’s attitudes to help-seeking and service responses. The overarching aim of the research is to promote improved protective responses for this target group in regard to safeguarding young people aged 11 to 17 from maltreatment.


From a detailed review of the literature, the study notes limitations in the knowledge base. In particular, the study notes the lack of research on contextual factors, such as the living environment, associated with child maltreatment in older children. The authors say there may be particular under-researched contextual factors associated with maltreatment in older children, such as the impact of social networks.

By contrast, the authors highlight important research developments in the past 10 years on the potential consequences of maltreatment on young people. The authors conclude that, contrary to general assumptions, maltreatment can have substantial negative consequences for this older age group. The research included interviews with young people who have had dealings with social services. Although drawing findings from a small sample of young people, the study identifies a number of critical issues that warrant further research.

First, it highlights the difficulties of gaining a clear picture of risks in a single encounter with a young person, as is often the case in initial assessment. Child maltreatment in older children is a complex issue, often bound up with or masked by problems of substance misuse, homelessness, violence and conflict with parents.

Second, the study highlights the importance of relationship-based practice. Young people do not easily seek help, being more likely to turn to peers. Here, relationships between professionals and young people are critical in achieving better outcomes. Further, some young people felt that action to safeguard them from harm had not happened quickly enough and they were unclear about safeguarding processes.

In total, 119 professionals were interviewed, drawn predominantly from police, schools, voluntary sector agencies and youth offending teams. Responses to vignettes indicated that professionals tended to view young people as less likely to suffer longer-term risks associated with maltreatment, indicating some age-related biases in risk assessment. Overall risks were deemed to be less for those older than 16. Significantly, relatively few of the professional referrers identified the young person as a source of further information.

Further, professionals’ local knowledge of likely response to referrals of older children influenced referral behaviour. Children’s social care was perceived as less likely to take safeguarding action when the referred young person was older than 15, although this was also subject to local resource issues.

Professionals cited frustrations with call centres as a further obstacle to effective referral-making. Professionals were not resistant to working with a child under the Common Assessment Framework, but its time-consuming nature was a disincentive.

The research team examined statistical data from four participating local authorities and age-related information available from national statistical returns on child protection to offer findings in relation to age-related patterns in the processing of referrals. Overall, the study does identify differential responses to older young people, which become more pronounced after initial assessment.

Referrals relating to older children were less likely to lead to enquiries under section 47 of the Children Act 1989. However, the authors note a significant gap in their analysis because they were unable to access statistics that would have provided a clearer picture about responses to young people under child-in-need procedures.

For the practice component of the study, survey data and a sample of interviews with practitioners and managers were gathered. Practitioners were asked to make risk assessments in relation to hypothetical scenarios.

Where young people in the scenarios were older, the assessment of risk tended to be slightly lower. However, the correlations were smaller than perhaps expected. The most significant aged-based differences in assessment of risk related to cases of supervisory neglect – with older children perceived as more resilient to this form of neglect. Resource constraints in agencies affected age-related biases in assessment. Professionals did not always perceive standard safeguarding processes as suitable for dealing with older children, due to interacting contextual factors such as peer group influence outside the home and the impact of the child’s own behaviour on parents.


The authors recommend that policymakers undertake further review of “what works” in terms of services for vulnerable young people, with a view to ensuring more consistency in service provision. They urged further research to explore the different pathways that young people take as they enter services. These would include the impact of the Common Assessment Framework, the child-in-need process and team around the child. The analysis should consider the suitability of these processes for the older age group. The authors also recommend a best practice guide on working with 11- to 17-year-olds based on the analysis.


This is a detailed study that makes a welcome contribution to the evidence base. The issue of maltreatment in young people aged 11 to 17 is a critical issue given findings from analyses of serious case reviews (Brandon et al, 2009).

Moreover, there are more than 9,000 young people aged 11 to 17 subject to a child protection plan in England. Statistics indicate that older children are significantly at risk of harm yet, as this study shows, services can be slow to respond to the needs of this social group. The evidence on prevalence elicited in this study, indicates that the incidence of adolescent maltreatment may be significantly higher than is reported, given the reluctance on the part of young people to seek help.

Practice implications

For directors of children’s services:

● Councils should be vigilant to the possibility of age-related biases in initial assessment.

● Analysis of re-referrals that relate to young people aged 11 to 17 may provide important information about unmet need and gaps in service provision.

● Where services are commissioned, there should be careful scrutiny of whether services will likely facilitate help-seeking in young people.

For frontline workers:

● Practitioners should be mindful of the young person as a key source of information in relation to presenting safeguarding concerns and that a robust assessment of needs and risks is unlikely to be gleaned from a single encounter.

● Practitioners should be aware of barriers to young people’s help-seeking behaviour and promote continuity in relationships between key practitioners and young people.

Karen Broadhurst is a senior lecturer in social work at Lancaster University

Further Reading

● Brandon M, Bailey S, Beldersone P, Gardner R, Sidebotham P, Dodsworth J, Warren C and Black J (2009), Understanding Serious Case Reviews and their Impact: a biennial analysis of serious case reviews 2005-2007, DCSF Research Review DCSF-RB129.

Broadhurst K, White S, Fish S, Munro E, Fletcher K, Lincoln H (2010), 10 Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them, NSPCC

● Stein M, Rees G, Hicks L, Gorin S (2009), Neglected Adolescents Literature Review (research brief), Department for Education

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