‘Transition’ is a process or period of changing from one state to another. It can happen throughout our lives and it’s experienced differently by different individuals. Within some aspects of social care, in particular safeguarding, the notion of transition can imply a definitive ‘line in the sand’ – a point of no return – at the age of 18 years. Children become adults on their eighteenth birthday; assumptions about capacity change overnight and eligibility for safeguarding support is very different depending which side of this line a person falls.
In recent years, the complexities of safeguarding children and adults have been challenging practice with an increased focus on violent crime, gang culture, domestic abuse, modern slavery, trafficking and sexual exploitation requiring local areas to adapt and innovate in how they safeguard young people and adults. These issues are revealing just how complex transition from childhood and adulthood can be when viewed through a safeguarding lens.
We know that 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. 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.
It is increasingly hard to justify our current binary approach to safeguarding, where childhood reaches an abrupt end and services withdraw from young adults based on arbitrary markers such as birthdays. ‘Transitional safeguarding’ challenges us to think about how we safeguard adolescents as they move into adulthood. In thinking about the extra-familial threats facing teenagers, such as sexual or criminal exploitation, it is sobering to note that perpetrators do not withdraw when a victim reaches 18 years old – but that professional services often do.
If we are determined to design a system that more effectively meets the safeguarding needs of adolescents and young adults, we need to start by understanding how those needs are distinct. Adolescence is a time of considerable change, characterised by shifts in social roles and changes in physical, biological and neurological development. Puberty effects emotions and behaviour – and some studies suggest that emotional regulation and executive functioning in the brain are still developing well into the 20s (Sawyer, et al 2018). Despite the common interpretation of the ‘age of mature logical reasoning’ commencing at 18 years (Sawyer et al, 2018), wider social trends – partnering, parenting and economic independence – challenge this notion. The risks adolescents face can be significant and where and how risks are encountered is different for them, compared with younger children. Recent research shows that adolescents are more likely to encounter risks of harm in a range of social contexts - reflecting increased time spent socialising outside the home and move towards greater independence (see www.contextualsafeguarding.org.uk).
Arguably, some of the challenges are rooted in the different frameworks within which Children’s and Adults’ Services operate. These differences can mean that transition from childhood to adulthood – from the perspective of accessing services – is often problematic.
Both systems have the twin responsibilities for preventing abuse and neglect. But, there are some important differences. For example, the children’s system is more focused on welfare and emphasises protection of children from harm and risk management approaches. Whereas for adults, the focus is arguable more oriented to wellbeing and includes the concept of risk enablement.
The so called ‘cliff edge’ exacerbated by mismatched thresholds is striking in relation to safeguarding services. The system responds to a young person facing harm, not in accordance with the risk s/he faces, but depending on whether s/he is 17 or 19 years old. Many young adults will not qualify for a safeguarding response as they do not have an identified care and support need, yet evidence shows that they can experience a range of harms and threats which can lead to increased adversity over time. The moral and economic case for a transitional safeguarding approach coalesce here.
Safeguarding is a field where traditional notions of childhood and adulthood have prevailed. But, there is much to learn from evolving practice in other areas – such as SEND, mental health, care leaving services, and developments in the youth justice system where transitions have been a major focus. Much learning can be shared between safeguarding systems: with the introduction of Making Safeguarding Personal, safeguarding adults now foregrounds individuals’ preferences, histories, circumstances and lifestyles to achieve a proportionate tolerance of acceptable risks. This highly person-centred approach resonates well with the need for adolescents to be supported to exercise safe autonomy. Similarly, innovations in safeguarding adolescents – such as Hackney’s work to pilot a contextual safeguarding approach – have much to offer local areas striving for whole-community approaches to safeguarding adults.
What is needed is an approach that can recognise adolescence as a distinct life stage that incorporates early adulthood. It needs to recognise the range of risks, behaviours and developmental needs unique to adolescents. This means enabling them to experiment and take proportionate risks, but acknowledging that they may still lack the maturity of an adult. It also requires a focus on an individuals’ strengths – which we know is vital for developing resilience, self-efficacy and high self-esteem. This can help young people avoid risks, manage challenging situations and learn from mistakes.
Increased pressure on local authorities to respond to emerging and complex needs make it clear that the time is right to reflect on our models of safeguarding adolescents and young adults. We must consider how we develop an approach which not only protects, but also prepares young people for their adult lives.
Sawyer S, Azzopardi P, Wickremarathne D, Patton G (2018) ‘The age of Adolescence’. The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health 2 (3) 223 – 228.