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Are we looking ‘under the light’ for vulnerable teenagers?


24 Aug 2016

Effective early intervention relies on the ability of a frontline professional to spot the signs of an impending crisis before the problem becomes evident or entrenched. Knowing where to look for these signals of risk, and when, is difficult. Practitioners have a range of methods and ‘tools’ at their disposal, but how reliable are they?

There are many things that might cause concern about children or young people. A new EIF report, written for us by a team of researchers at Coventry University, looks at a particular issue: the signs that a young person may be at increased risk of child sexual abuse or exploitation. The starkest finding is that evidence about the indicators of risk for becoming a victim or perpetrator of this kind of abuse is still lacking.

Because the evidence is lacking, the many different tools used by professionals to try to spot young people who may be at risk are also lacking. They go some way towards informing professional decision-making, but many of them are focused on spotting the more obvious signs that abuse is already occurring. The threshold for being identified as a potential victim is high. These tools and processes aren’t yet enabling professionals to identify and support children and young people showing early signals of risk.

Because the evidence is lacking, the many different tools used by professionals to try to spot young people who may be at risk are also lacking.

Part of the problem is that these tools are designed to screen for a very particular set of behaviours that might indicate vulnerability to a very particular threat. As the report’s authors say: “Research, policy and practice in this area could be said to be looking ‘under the light’, potentially focusing too heavily on a particular model of child sexual abuse or exploitation, and ‘stereotypical’ risk indicators or populations.” Our previous report on the risk indicators for involvement in gangs or youth violence pointed to the same problem.

We know that professionals can find it challenging to know which indicators of risk are most significant, and to understand how this might change through childhood and adolescence. EIF is keen to use the current evidence base to offer clear, accessible advice to practitioners about the signals of risk that are most strongly associated with a whole range of poor child outcomes – the signs they need to be looking out for and responding to at different stages of child development.

We are now beginning a wider piece of work, funded by Public Health England, to consider the range of behaviours which can manifest in adolescence and which may be early indicators of an increased risk of problems. We will also be considering the extent to which these indicators are picked up and acted upon within existing early help systems and processes. This will sit alongside a piece of work to look at the most predictive signals of risk at different developmental milestones through early childhood.

Taken together, these projects will enable us to offer evidence-based advice to practitioners and commissioners about spotting the earliest signs of vulnerability in children and young people, and providing the kind of support that we know can transform a young person’s life.

About the author

Stephanie Waddell

Steph is assistant director for impact and knowledge mobilisation at EIF.