Risk Factor: Dealing with an aggressive teenager in care

Social worker Declan Henry (pictured) discusses with Mark Drinkwater how he dealt with a girl of 14 who had a history of violence in residential care

Social worker Declan Henry (pictured) discusses with Mark Drinkwater how he dealt with a girl of 14 who had a history of violence in residential care


Practitioner Declan Henry, social worker

Field Young offenders

Location South east England

Client Lucy*, 14, lives in a children’s home.

Case history Lucy has had more than a dozen residential placements break down, mainly because of her aggressive behaviour and absconding. She has lived in her current children’s home for the past eight months and is relatively settled. Her attendance at school has been poor for some years.

Dilemma Lucy has assaulted a member of staff at the home. In court she received a youth rehabilitation order. However, there continues to be tension between Lucy and the staff member, who are unable to avoid each other in the home.

Risk factor If Lucy does not control her angry outbursts she will jeopardise her placement once more or, worse, risk receiving a custodial sentence.

Outcome The youth offending team social worker works alongside other professionals to implement a series of interventions, including coping strategies to reduce her aggressive outbursts. With this support Lucy has steered clear of trouble in the children’s home.

*Name has been changed


Without the support of a family, life in a children’s home can be a challenge for the children placed there.

These potentially volatile settings often result in confrontations between staff and residents – something that Declan Henry is all too familiar with in his role as social worker with a youth offending team.

One of his recent clients, Lucy*, was referred to him after she pleaded guilty to an assault on a member of staff at her children’s home. Henry describes the incident that led to the court case: “Lucy wanted to go out past her curfew. She wasn’t allowed out and put up a challenge that ended in a physical restraint. During the restraint, she assaulted a member of staff who was hurt, although not seriously. She then came before the court on an assault charge. Unfortunately this happens quite frequently with young people in care.”

When the case was referred to Henry, he was made aware of Lucy’s difficult upbringing. One particularly worrying factor was that she had seen a lot of aggression when she lived at home with her mother. “She had a problematic background where there was lots of violence. Her mother had a number of violent relationships,” he says. “From this she learned that the way to resolve situations was to raise her fists.”

As a result of the assault, Lucy went to court where she received a youth rehabilitation order (YRO). This community sentence came into effect last year and enables courts to issue a number of combined sentences in one generic order. Henry’s role in the case is to supervise Lucy’s case for six months, which included overseeing her unpaid reparation work.

However, the main focus of his work focuses on improving her anger management skills. “We aim to make sure she doesn’t get into that type of situation again and that she learns some coping strategies and will know that when she gets into volatile situations to walk away or to go to her room,” he says. “Hopefully we will have got the message across to her that if she keeps offending and keeps going back to court that she risks going into custody.”

Henry explains that the six-month YRO order is nearing completion and he is pleased with progress. “We developed a good relationship with Lucy,” he says. “She’s been attending appointments and she is engaging. That’s a good 70% of it – if a young person will turn up and engage. Even though sometimes it can be a struggle, you are sowing small seeds and building on that. She’s developing positive relationships and she hasn’t been in trouble since.”

Partnership work has been particularly important in this case. Alongside Henry’s work on anger management techniques, a colleague facilitated some delicate mediation meetings between Lucy and the staff member she assaulted. This work was considered essential if Lucy was to continue living in the home. It’s an approach that’s gaining prominence and Henry is pleased that local police are keen to promote mediation and restorative justice as a way of avoiding criminalising young people.

Lucy had lived in numerous children’s homes previously and this constant change was very disruptive.

Henry emphasises the importance of the placement at the children’s home succeeding, because failure would have compounded her problems. “I’ve seen it so often,” he says. “You meet a young person at the start of the court order, you put together a plan that you’re going to do all this work with them. You see them for perhaps six weeks and then suddenly something will have happened in the care home and they will have changed placements and gone out of borough.”

When young offenders move boroughs, these cases are handed over to a worker in the new local authority who has to start the process all over again. This lack of continuity is something that Henry finds frustrating for professionals and incredibly unsettling for the young person.

Although Henry acknowledges that he made significant progress with this case, he feels the odds are stacked against young people in care.

“They are some of the most vulnerable people in society,” he says. “If they get into little disputes with the care home staff it’s no more than any other child gets into with their mum or dad, or their brother or sister. How many of those types of disputes end up in the courtroom? By going through the courts we are punishing them even more. After all, the children’s home is their home. They don’t have any other home to go to.”


Increased stability

Lucy has had a large number of placement breakdowns. Without intensive support she risks jeopardising her current placement, which would cause further instability.

Tailored interventions

The rehabilitation order ensures that Lucy receive tailored interventions, including coping strategies for managing anger and mediation sessions. These should give her the opportunity to learn about the impact of her behaviour.

Mediation sessions

With anger management skills and the mediation sessions in place, Lucy can work on other aspects of her development, including her studies.


Time-limited support

The youth offending team social worker is only involved for a period of six months. When this time-limited support ceases Lucy may return to her aggressive behaviour.


The interventions may be perceived as lenient to some. There is a risk that this leniency might compound Lucy’s poor behaviour in the long run

Staff attitudes

Assaults on staff are an emotive issue. Although Lucy may have reconciled her differences with her victim, other staff may have unresolved negative feelings about the incident.


Shellie Keen, youth justice consultant

The link between young people who are looked after and the criminal justice system is well documented and a recent Prison Reform Trust briefing reported that 71% of children in custody have either been involved with social services, or in care, before entering custody.

Although Lucy’s behaviour fortunately did not result in a custodial sentence, this case is one that may be indicative of how young people in care enter the criminal justice system. Disputes between young people in care and care home staff may equate to those disputes young people have with their parents in their family home but care home staff often feel that they have little option but to call the police.

Although being arrested and sentenced is a direct punishment, this does little to repair the harm caused or to deal with the aftermath, which in this case involves Lucy continuing to live in the care home alongside the staff member she assaulted.

It’s encouraging that mediation has taken place between Lucy and the staff member. These approaches can bring about positive change by allowing individuals to express to each other how what has happened has affected them and to identify ways of repairing the harm caused and moving forward.

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This article is published in the 16 September 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Resolving a violent dispute”

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