‘Exploitation does not stop at 18’: chief social workers highlight gap in support for young adult victims

A lack of understanding and restrictive interpretations of the Care Act mean support often falls off a cliff for victims of criminal or sexual exploitation when they reach adulthood, warn sector experts

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Last week’s annual report from England’s chief social workers for adults made a priority of the need to safeguard young people when they turn 18, particularly from sexual and criminal exploitation.

It comes as sector leaders call for national leadership on so-called “transitional safeguarding” in order to raise awareness of the issue and ensure young victims of exploitation do not lose support when they turn 18.

Child sexual exploitation – and more recently, child criminal exploitation, often associated with county lines drug dealing – have become more prominent as priority areas for children’s services. Much more recently, transitional safeguarding has been raised as an issue adult social services needs to get to grips with.

The chief social workers’ report says it has been positive to see the subject aired more widely, but there is still some way to go in adult social care to understand how to respond to sexual and criminal exploitation.

“It’s important to remember this does not stop at eighteen and is not an issue which children’s services can tackle alone – our safeguarding services need a different response,” the chief social workers’ report said. “Unfortunately, they are often configured in ways which do not support young people after the age of eighteen unless they have a disability.

“Social work, informed and skilled in this area, could really make a difference with its strong professional influence in partnership arrangements, helping to prevent long-term mental health issues, avoid further harm and put an end to exploitation.”

‘Unresolved trauma’

In recent years, local authorities have been trying to grapple with the complexities of safeguarding children and young adults affected by violent crime, grooming, domestic abuse, modern slavery, trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Writing in 2018, Dez Holmes, director of Research in Practice, said that these issues were revealing just how complex transition from childhood to adulthood can be when viewed through a safeguarding lens.

“The experience of adversity in childhood can make some adolescents particularly vulnerable to harm and that the effects of such harm can persist into adulthood, this means that there will likely be a proportion of adolescents who either need to transition directly into receiving support from adults’ services, or who are more likely to require them later in life,” she wrote.

“Research shows that unresolved trauma can increase risks later in adulthood and we know that not responding to harms in early adulthood can mean that people have more difficult and painful lives, and may need more expensive support later.”

Samantha Keith, Newcastle council’s adults’ safeguarding service manager, says complex trauma is one of the main challenges in transitional safeguarding.

“As well as trauma and mental health issues, another big problem is addiction, which has developed as part of the grooming process.”

Keith says when substance misuse is at play, it can often be difficult to get a swift response from mental health services.

“The response from mental health will often be: ‘we can’t deal with the trauma until they’ve come off the substances’.” 

Interpreting the Care Act

Keith says the different legislation governing children’s and adults’ services is also part of the reason behind the cliff edge in support for exploitation victims at age 18.

“The Care Act states it’s for adults with ‘care and support needs’, so people who have difficulties with personal care, managing within the home and within the community; that means if you’re somebody who’s been abused and exploited as a young person, you don’t qualify explicitly as someone with care and support needs,” says Keith.

And while there are arrangements to support the transition of young people receiving services under the Children Act to the Care Act, through assessments designed to capture what their needs will be on turning 18, Keith says this is “more usually for children with disabilities rather than those who have been criminally or sexually exploited”.

However, Keith says the Care Act allows local authorities to “do this work” if they interpret it as such, on the basis that many victims do have care and support needs.

“In my view [the Care Act] allows an area of flexibility to think ‘okay, what does somebody who has been targeted for exploitation look like?’. They might misuse drugs and alcohol, they might be homeless and/or have mental health problems.

“We [at Newcastle] found there may be learning disability at play too, whether that’s diagnosed or not, and the perpetrators are able to target them through that,” Keith says.

Lack of legal options to intervene

In 2018, Newcastle’s safeguarding children and safeguarding adult boards published a joint thematic serious case review into the sexual exploitation of children and adults with care and support needs. This was linked to Operation Sanctuary, the police investigation into the grooming of girls and young women in the city.

The SCR identified a lack of guidance in this area in relation to adult safeguarding. It also raised concerns about the availability of legal options to protect adult victims of exploitation who did not lack capacity under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 – but were subject to coercion by perpetrators – to take decisions to protect themselves.

“The state is not permitted without legal authority to intervene to protect adults from making bad choices or forming inappropriate relationships,” the review said. “Human rights issues are engaged. As with children, it was clear that adults at risk were being targeted, groomed and exploited and that perpetrators targeted vulnerability and undermined ability to make choices. But the circumstances that justify or require intervention by a state agency are not well defined.”

The review praised Newcastle for its early development of collaborative planning joint working arrangements between children’s and adults’ services, but said its success had depended on “flexible interpretations of legislation and processes”.

“Legislation and guidance will never keep up with the changing nature of risks and effective safeguarding depends on adopting an imaginative and creative approach, working closely with proactive, specialist lawyers to explore all options and expose weaknesses,” the report said.

However, it also called for an “urgent review” of the national framework of legislation and guidance for safeguarding adults from sexual exploitation, to take account of growing knowledge.

Adolescence ‘extends to mid-20s’

Holmes says recent research suggests adolescence extends to the mid-20s, meaning the system needs to take a “fluid, personalised response” to safeguarding victims of exploitation.

In a submission to a 2016 report by Parliament’s justice select committee on young adult offenders, the Transition to Adulthood Alliance (T2A) said there was an “irrefutable body of evidence from advances in behavioural neuro-science that the typical adult male brain isn’t fully formed until at least the mid-20s, meaning that young adult males typically have more psycho-social similarities to children than to older adults”.

The justice select committee report added: “Those parts of the brain influencing maturity that are the last to develop are responsible for controlling how individuals weigh long-term gains and costs against short-term rewards.

“As the system to regulate ‘reward seeking’ is still evolving this affects how young adults judge situations and decide to act, including consequential thinking, future-oriented decisions, empathy, remorse, and planning.”

While this related to offending behaviour, the issues of brain development are relevant to young adult victims of exploitation.

However, Holmes says this is not reflected in services.

“For some young people their needs and vulnerabilities pre-18 are understood and within a matter of months or years they can then experience our support from a different angle,” Holmes says.

‘Victims to perpetrators overnight’

This includes the fact that young people who may have been both victims and perpetrators of exploitation during their childhood may be seen purely as perpetrators within adults’ services.

“Young adults are contextualised as perpetrators almost overnight; when you’re experiencing trauma that can be very distressing.”

She adds that, while there is insufficient money in the system, a failure to support young adult victims does not save resources; rather, it transfers pressures elsewhere. When we walk away at 18 and our services stop at 18, the perpetrators don’t stop exploiting the person, the public doesn’t stop funding the person. Instead they do this through the drug and alcohol system or the mental health system.

“It’s a very expensive inhumane machine we are already funding, the business case isn’t hard to make.”

Keith says Newcastle has done a lot of work with police, trading standards, local housing providers, hospitals and GPs about the support needs of young adult victims.

“Basically everybody we’d speak to about a child, we speak to about adults too,” she adds.

“It’s about equipping everybody with the ability to think with that broader lens; rather than having specialist teams, what we have done is we’ve got some risk assessments and initial tools that give you space to document what you’re concerned about,” Keith says.

She says Newcastle’s local police force has gotten a lot better at sending in referrals for over-18s and were working more closely with social services.

“If you’re working with somebody, it could be a child or it could be an adult, it’s making sure you’re putting the right referrals in, it’s about understanding the impact and understanding the context,” Keith adds.

“We feel strongly that everybody needs to be aware of this, thinking from a strategic point of view. I want to make a plea to the government, we’re thinking a lot about child exploitation, but does it stop?”

Legislative changes in recent years have seen the extension of support up to age 25 for care leavers and for young people with special educational needs, while a number of local authorities have introduced 0-25 services for disabled young people.

Hertfordshire council director of children’s services Jenny Coles says these developments have inspired the council to adopt a similar approach to victims of exploitation.

“For the last three years we’ve gradually been looking at the 0-25 approach for children who have been criminally and sexually exploited, so it’s the same for young people with special education needs and disabilities.”

‘Step-change in approach needed’

Steve Baguely, community and education lead at anti-exploitation network the NWG Exploitation Response Unit, says a “step-change on approach” is needed in support for young adults that goes beyond social care.

Baguely’s role includes helping share good practice on this issue between areas, and between children’s and adults’ services, through an electronic network.

Baguely says past cases provide a great deal of learning in the transitional safeguarding space. One of those cases is a safeguarding adults review (SAR), published last year by Solihull Safeguarding Adults Board, into the death of a 20-year-old woman, ‘Rachel’, who had been a victim of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and trafficking since she was 17 years old.

One of the key findings from the review was the need to firm up the multi-agency pathways and eligibility criteria for considering what support might be provided when child victims transition into adulthood. It says Rachel’s case highlighted a “lack of robustness in transition pathways” for victims unless they are looked-after children where there are statutory responsibilities entitling them to continued support up to the age of 25 from the local authority as care leavers.

“Where transition to adult services has been achieved, this has largely been due to the goodwill and creative solutions of some teams in finding ways of providing support because of an ongoing concern to safeguard young adults at risk,” the review says.

Echoing Holmes’ point, the Rachel SAR also touched on the indirect cost of poor transitional safeguarding, saying: “It is also important to bear in mind the potential cost benefit to early intervention and support because without it, victims are likely to appear elsewhere in the health and social care system as they grow older which may result in more costly service responses.”

These issues are now set to be tackled by the chief social workers.

Over the coming months they plan to:

  • Hold a roundtable event with national experts to discuss this growing issue.
  • Produce a practice note for social workers.
  • Produce guidance for adult safeguarding teams.

It is hoped this will provide practitioners with useful tools and advice with which to support over-18-year-olds who are victims of exploitation, while also providing solutions to the barriers that prevent them getting the support they need.

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