Professionals free to exercise discretion over sexually active children

Local safeguarding children’s boards must ensure their protocols on professionals sharing information about sexually active young people reflect new national guidance, campaigners have warned.

The Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance published by the Department for Education and Skills last week argues that professionals working with sexually active young people should be allowed to use their discretion to decide on a case by case basis whether a referral to social services is in a child’s best interests.

The guidance states that a presumption that sexual activity must be a matter of concern should be stronger the younger the child. For all children aged under-13 there should be a presumption that the case will be reported – and any decision not to must be fully documented.

However, with all sexually active children, professionals must take additional factors into account as well as a child’s age. Other considerations include t a child’s level of maturity and understanding, any significant age differences between them and their partner, power imbalances in their relationship, and the misuse of drugs or alcohol.

“The Working Together guidance makes it clear that decisions about whether to share information about a young person should always be based on an assessment of that individual’s situation, and that this also applies when the young person is under the age of 13,” said Jan Barlow, chief executive of sexual health charity Brook.

“Confidentiality is extremely important to young people when they need advice on sex and relationships. Many will not ask for help at all if they do not believe that the service is confidential.

“The most important thing is that the Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards now develop their own protocols in line with the national guidance.”

Last summer, the London Child Protection Committee sparked controversy when it issued draft guidance suggesting that anybody under the age of 13 who was sexually active should automatically be reported to the police, and that checks should be carried out on the partners of any sexually active under-16s.

The British Medical Association, which raised concerns at the time about doctors being forced to breach children’s confidentiality, last week welcomed the government’s decision not to go down the route of mandatory reporting and for the process to be governed instead by the child or young person’s best interests.

However, ethics committee chair Dr Michael Wilks said there were still parts of the guidance that could be open to misinterpretation, and called for its implementation to be “closely monitored”.

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