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Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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3.4 Risk, safety and young people

This is a photograph of a person rock climbing.
Figure 12

Stage theories of development identify adolescence as a distinctive phase. This can help social workers think about how they engage with young people and provide support. Social workers can also use stage theories to reflect on the impact of adolescence when working with people during adulthood and later life.

Bailey (2006) identifies how risk-taking is common behaviour associated with adolescence. It fits closely with this period as a time when experimentation, independence and non-conformity prevails. Social workers may meet young people who smoke, have eating disorders, misuse drugs, self-harm, run away or are involved in offending behaviour (Cooper and Hester, 2011). Some of these activities may not result in long-term harm but some teenagers’ behaviours do lead to damage that continues into adult life.

An accumulation of different risks, or specific kinds of risk involving safeguarding concerns, can result in situations where a young person is at risk of harm to their wellbeing. Social workers are likely to be involved in situations where young people’s risk-taking behaviours reach this point. It is important in such circumstances that they build effective relationships with the young person and their caretakers and fully assess the risks both for this young person and other young people.

Depending on the type and severity of risk, different options are open to social workers enabling them to support young people – these include statutory powers, family support, direct work or referral to other specialist professionals and agencies. In very extreme cases, secure accommodation may be an option for some young people. Secure accommodation is a form of residential care for the small number of children who have been assessed as being at significant risk to themselves or others in the community.

Taking away the liberty of a young person in the interests of safeguarding their welfare is a decision made only when other options are not suitable. In England and Wales this is governed by a legal framework laid out in the Children Act 1989 and is protective in nature; the welfare of the child is relevant but not paramount. A child can be kept in secure accommodation without an order of the court for a total of seventy-two hours.

A child who is being ‘looked after’ by a local authority by being provided with accommodation cannot, under Section 20 of the Children Act, be placed or kept in accommodation which has the purpose of restricting the child’s liberty unless the requirements of Section 25 are met.

These requirements are:

  • that the child has a history of running away and is likely to run away from accommodation which isn’t secure; and, if he/she runs away, he/she is likely to suffer significant harm; or
  • if the child isn’t in secure accommodation, he/she is likely to injure himself/herself or someone else.

If the court makes an order, the first order can be made for an initial maximum period of three months and after that for further periods of up to six months (Regulations 11 and 12). Time starts running from the date of the order. A child who is under 13 years of age cannot be placed in secure accommodation in a community home, without the prior approval of the Secretary of State. Under Regulation 15, a local authority looking after a child in secure accommodation must appoint at least three persons – at least one of whom must not be employed by the local authority or looking after the child on behalf of the local authority – to review the keeping of the child in secure accommodation within one month of the start of the placement and then at intervals not exceeding three months.

In Scotland, children and young people can be placed in secure accommodation by the children’s hearing or the courts. Most children under 16 years old will be referred to the children’s hearing system. If they are deemed as being at risk, or a risk to others, they may be placed on a Compulsory Supervision Order (s.83 Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011) with a secure accommodation authorisation. For children under 16 years old, and under 18 years old, on a compulsory supervision order, the focus of decision-making must be on the child’s welfare, in line with the philosophy of ‘needs not deeds’. ‘Needs not deeds’ refers to the underlying principle of the Children’s Hearing System in Scotland that makes decisions that prioritise the assessed ‘needs’ of young people ahead of their alleged or proven offending behaviour (i.e. the ‘deeds’). However, most 16- and 17-year-olds who have committed offences, as well as a very small number of under 16-year-olds who have committed serious offences, will enter the criminal justice system. The courts can then impose a custodial sentence in secure accommodation if the young person is under 18 years old and is deemed to pose a risk to the public.