Unseen Teens – 16 and 17-year olds and transition

Unseen Teens – 16 and 17-year olds and transition.

Last weekend an issue close to my heart and that of the NWG received some much-warranted media attention. Several of the Sunday papers featured a letter signed by The Children’s Society and twelve other charities regarding the challenges faced by 16 and 17-year olds who are in need of support as they transition into adulthood.

16 and 17-year olds have already been through a somewhat more hidden transition at the end of year 11. The impact of swinging cuts to youth services and Connexions often leaves this vulnerable age group with less support that younger children, when potentially they need it most as they approach adulthood.

The letter referred to these children as ‘unseen teens’. Unfortunately, this is all too often an accurate label in regard of a blind spot for those services with responsibilities for the welfare of children. 16 and 17-year olds are frequently either not recognised as children due to unhelpful contradictions in legislation or the safeguarding of them is not considered through the same lens as younger children.

However, is it really accurate to describe 16 and 17-year olds as unseen? They are the children who are abused and exploited often outside of the family home. They are the children who go missing or who are trafficked by criminal gangs. They are the children who sleep rough or present at council housing services. None of this happens behind closed doors – the chances are we will all walk past a 16 or 17-year old today who needs support.

As a CSE practitioner, there have been many challenges to how as a field we have responded to the issue, with much of the learning we can now apply to a broader understanding of exploitation having been drawn from what, despite our best intentions, we got wrong. But as we now debate whether CSE has played out its usefulness as a construct and should be reconsidered as a form of CSA, if we got nothing else right addressing CSE, we got people talking about the vulnerability of older children, including 16 and 17-year olds.

This recognition that child abuse is not limited to the abuse or neglect of younger children within the family home and that older children are equally deserving of our support is now helping to tackle other forms of exploitation affecting 16 and 17-year olds. The NWG hopes to play a critical role in ensuring the lessons from tackling CSE are shared, and where appropriate applied to addressing other forms of exploitation in partnership with other agencies committed to supporting vulnerable adolescents.

Our Education and Community Awareness and Police Leads have been instrumental in championing this area of work, in particular stressing the importance of multi-agency disruption activity to safeguard vulnerable 16 and 17-year olds.

Emerging approaches to meeting the needs of children exploited outside the family home such as Contextual, Complex and Transitional Safeguarding provide great platforms to improving service responses to 16 and 17-year olds.

The Children’s Society and co-signatories to the letter quite rightly point out the need for governmental action to improve transition arrangements for 16 and 17-year olds in order to avoid the ‘cliff-edge’ of support so many approaching adulthoods currently face.

Colleagues at the NWG have spent the last 12 months engaging with adult services who we see as critical to the conversation – this is not an issue children’s services can remedy alone. The impact of this work has been improved local dialogue between adult and children’s services and an increasing number of local authorities prioritising transition in their strategies.

The consequences of not getting this right for 16 and 17-year olds is the tragic lifelong consequences for individuals and the damaging affect for all of us as a society. Transition doesn’t have to be the by-word for trouble it has become. For some children the transition from primary to secondary school or to college can be a positive experience – we need to make that the case for all children.

Link to the Children’s Society letter – https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/apr/28/unseen-teens-need-targeted-and-coordinated-support