Residential care dilemmas: How do I safeguard children in public?

David Jones*, a residential child care worker, shares a dilemma he’s faced at work – how to protect an angry looked-after teenager in public

I’d been shopping in the city centre with a 15-year-old lad who’d become increasingly agitated after dropping and damaging his mobile phone on the way back to our car.

I told him we could go back into town and get it mended when he suddenly started swearing at passers-by. He refused to get into the car and shouted “paedophile” at me. Initially I ignored him, thinking he would stop, and explained how dangerous it could be if he used such a word in public.

Two men then approached me and asked what was going on. I explained I was a residential child care worker and showed them my identification, but they were clearly suspicious. “Anyone can make a false ID,” one of them said. His posture and tone of voice were threatening and he became verbally aggressive towards me. I felt extremely ill at ease. At this point the boy – who is very vulnerable to sexual exploitation – started to walk off.

‘I had to consider my own safety’

With or without the unwanted attention of two members of the public – whose concern I could, nevertheless, appreciate – I’m not allowed to physically stop a young person from walking or running off. What do I do? On previous occasions I’ve followed a young person and persuaded them to return with me – and attracted some very uncomfortable looks from people in the process – but this kid was continuing to shout abuse at me and I had to consider my own safety.

I actually surprised myself when I firmly told the two men that I really was a residential child care worker and that I had a duty of care to this kid. Whether the phrase “duty of care” surprised and registered with them, I don’t know. But they backed off and I went after the kid.

I lost him in the crowd though and returned to the car. I rang a colleague and told him what had happened. He said I’d done everything I could and should return to the home. In the meantime, he would check the kid’s risk assessment.

I knew it required a search of the home’s surrounding area – not relevant in this case – and phoning the boy’s mum, aunt and the parents of his best friend to let them know what had happened and to contact us if he came to them. And because of the kid’s high-risk status, we wouldn’t categorise him as an ‘unauthorized absence’ and give him the time to return before contacting the police, as detailed in his risk assessment.

‘There’s only so much we can do’

Instead, my colleague would report him missing to the police immediately, giving a description of what he was wearing, his height and build, and explain any allergies, drug usage, risk of sexual exploitation and whether he had any money on him. Careline would then be informed. An hour later, the boy returned safe and well to the home.

In regular supervision with a senior colleague, staff are reminded that there’s only so much we can do to protect a child in public when they want away. And also that we do have a duty of care to ourselves. Sometimes you can persuade a young person to return, and sometimes you can’t.

And even if you keep them in sight, whether on foot or in a people carrier, the kid will only double their efforts to lose you. And then of course there’s the possibility that a member of the public might request a word with you. You do your best.

*Name has been changed

  • What professional dilemmas have you faced at work? Let us know how you dealt with them by leaving a comment below

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