Keeping the safety net

By Dez Holmes | 06 September 2021

In a 2018 briefing, we introduced and described the concept of Transitional Safeguarding as: ‘an approach to safeguarding adolescents and young adults fluidly across developmental stages which builds on the best available evidence, learns from both children’s and adult safeguarding practice and which prepares young people for their adult lives’.

It sought to reflect concerns that some young people ‘fall through the net’ as they turn 18. Unlike other areas of practice and policy, safeguarding has retained a strikingly binary construct of childhood and adulthood. This is despite the fact that many harms do not stop at 18 and research highlighting that our brains continue to develop well into our mid-20s .

One director described the separate safeguarding systems as ‘two different planets, seemingly moving even further apart’, with differing policy frameworks, legislative duties, thresholds for intervention, and Government departments overseeing these two planets… Analysis of safeguarding reviews shows the tragic consequences for those older teenagers and young adults poorly served by this disconnected system.

A young person under 18 facing exploitations will likely be understood as requiring safeguarding support, but overnight, the same young person facing exactly the same harms will find that they are ineligible for such support if they do not have formally defined ‘care and support needs’ as set out in the Care Act 2014. The focus on eligibility is understandable given resource constraints, but this has arguably been at the expense of the Act’s prevention principle – which compels us all to try and prevent, reduce or delay care and support needs. Failure to do this can mean young people’s problems worsen, leading to more costly and intrusive intervention in later adulthood.

Systems leadership is collective and boundary-spanning by definition; it deliberately seeks out the spaces between the silos and aims to influence across borders – be they age-related, service-related or geographical. Such an approach is essential for issues that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Safeguarding people – particularly from harms we are still learning about, such as criminal or sexual exploitation – is precisely such an issue.

Developing a Transitional Safeguarding response is complex, particularly as limiting the bounds of statutory safeguarding is key to avoiding over-intrusive and paternalistic intervention.

Social care colleagues working with adults are used to navigating the delicate balance of risk and rights, of protection and participation. Local authority leadership is therefore invaluable to Transitional Safeguarding – as shown in the local case studies with a recent Bridging the Gap Knowledge Briefing by Research in Practice and colleagues.

Local authority colleagues, especially within social care, see first-hand the need for a boundary-spanning approach – from both a moral and economic perspective. The harms and adversities facing many young people are interlinked – and the interactions between inequality, mental ill-health, trauma, exploitation and homelessness play out across the life-course.

When parents struggle to provide safe care for their children, they are very often carrying their own painful childhood experiences; care-experienced people and those with a history of trauma are over-represented among the prison population – three-quarters of mental health problems reportedly start under the age of 24 .

The current binary approach of ceasing children’s safeguarding support at 18, only for some young people’s needs to escalate to the extent they may eventually qualify for a safeguarding response as an adult, is remarkably poor value for money. Recognition that connected issues require collective investment underpinned the Total Place initiative (later replaced by Whole Place Community Budgets pilot), but unfortunately not pursued.

If the collective costs associated with young people facing harm were more visible, this could leverage preventative investment and would help to provide the ‘business case’ for Transitional Safeguarding.

Many partners and providers are willing and able allies to the Transitional Safeguarding agenda, but require commissioning and governance frameworks that focus on outcomes, not outputs. Councils are ideally placed to enable complexity-attuned commissioning, using their influencing and convening power to allow collaborative working to flourish.

Local authorities often lead the charge to ensure partners are working together – bound not simply by a protocol, but by a shared vision and values. Good councils know that continuous improvement means taking risks and making mistakes and that innovation involves taking a leap of faith. The best councils have public service values written through them like a stick of rock, leaning in to ‘the difficult stuff’ simply because it is the right thing to do. This is the leadership we need to make Transitional Safeguarding a reality.

Dez Holmes is director of Research in Practice


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