Safeguarding adolescents in Waltham Forest

05 March 2018

Waltham Forest Daniel Phelps and Amana Gordon

The service response to vulnerable adolescents had always appeared to us to be full of contradictions and paradoxes, but it was the findings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham that acted as a trigger for Waltham Forest Council to fundamentally review and change its approach to safeguarding adolescents. This blog outlines the challenge for the system and how Waltham Forest drove improvements with the support of a framework provided by Research in Practice.

We were of course aware of the challenges to the Child Protection system where adolescents were involved. The service response to vulnerable adolescents had always appeared to us to be full of contradictions. Our experience had shown there were flaws in the system that, we argued, was focused primarily around preventing harm and maltreatment among younger children who may be at risk within their own family. We felt the system was not well-placed to serve the needs of adolescents where many of the risks are outside of the home.

The findings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham (2014) acted as a trigger for us to sit down and fundamentally review and change our approach to safeguarding adolescents. It was through working together on the Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) sub-group of the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board (LSCB) that the paradoxes of the service response to vulnerable adolescents were brought into sharp focus. As a multi-agency group we grappled with the measurement of CSE, in particular trying to measure instances of the ‘binary’ victim/perpetrator count and seeking to define the service response into a similarly blunt ‘support for victim’ or ‘punishment for the offender’ dynamic. We knew that this over-simplification was far removed from the lived experience of the young people that were identified as at risk and subsequently, ill-suited to meet their needs. 

We also recognised that whilst the partnership was committed to change and improving the collective response to adolescent risk, there was not a partnership-wide set of shared beliefs into this area. The full spectrum of views were evident, from victim blaming attitudes to views of ‘victim passivity’ as colleagues struggled to make sense of adolescent decision-making and adolescent ‘agency’. These preconceptions placed a strain on professional relationships, with those working with the child having unrealistic expectations of each other and the powers they had to reduce the risk. Whilst it was recognised that these professional conflicts arose from the anxiety of not being able to keep the child safe, they were unhelpful and needed to change.

Twelve months ago two things happened. Firstly we took a paper to the LSCB, setting out the learning from the Jay report and setting a challenge to all partners. In it we asked how well do each of the respective services at the board meet the seven principles for effective work with adolescents? A task and finish group was established to undertake a review. As a first step, we asked all partner agencies to review their existing service plans against the seven principles as outlined in the Research in Practice paper That Difficult Age: Developing a more effective response to risks in adolescence.

Secondly, we ran a workshop on working with adolescents who may be gang-affected and/or at risk of sexual or criminal exploitation. The work undertaken in this meeting fuelled our appetite to understand the context and complexity of the adolescents we are working with and move from an individual, single events-based model to mapping the world as seen by the adolescent, and their network of friends and influences – often referred to as ‘contextual safeguarding’. Research into young people’s experiences of sexual violence and exploitation conducted by Firmin et al (2016) identified limitations in social work practice being able to address significant harm external to the family and a need for practitioners to be able to move beyond traditional 1:1 social work and to develop methods to understand the lived experiences of the young people they work with. 

Thanks to the task and finish group, we now have agreed clear aims about changing the way we approach the safeguarding needs of adolescents. The primary task is to embed a culture of understanding the complexity of keeping adolescents safe and ensuring a clear and sophisticated focus on the risks that they are exposed to that are external to the family context. 

Our practice will be to respond to the pull factors, peer networks and the influence of people that seek to cause harm - things that can lead to adolescents making constrained choices that may increase the risks they are exposed to. We will attempt to identify these multi-faceted safeguarding issues and seek to respond in a more comprehensive way that avoids duplication and reduces the gender bias that more traditional methods have reinforced, particularly around harmful sexual behaviour, child sexual exploitation and gang-affected young people. 

One critical success factor will be providing sustainable workforce development to ensure a culture shift in the way we deliver services that are brave, innovative, can hold and manage risk and avoid using blaming language and responses. We have already seen a shift in practice for the better through using leadership and modelling to challenge perceptions and negative language and through stretching the lens of practitioners to see the whole picture and adopt strengths-based approaches of working with adolescents to understand their worlds.

As we now work towards defining a more concrete policy we have already seen the fruits of our labour with practitioners and senior leaders working together to tackle problems in different and better ways. A tangible demonstration of this was when two young men aged 13 and 12 were found with a considerable amount of crack cocaine. The young men had previous offences and were repeatedly reported missing. Through mapping conducted at an operational and strategic level we had identified that these two young men had been groomed by a significant adult organised crime network and were running drugs for them up and down the country (county lines). Following their arrest, a discussion took place between the Assistant Director for Safeguarding and the Detective Chief Inspector and a decision was made for the two young men to be dealt with through modern slavery laws and plans put it place to safeguard them and support them to exit from the organised crime network they had become entangled in. With hard work and tenacity we implemented new approaches to keep these two young men safe. The mother of one of the boys contacted her MP with a long complimentary email which concluded:

‘I am honestly grateful and no action of mine can show how grateful I am as you've helped saved my son life’. 

That feedback, the direct views and experiences of people accessing our services, is evidence and motivation for us to continue and to be confident we are moving in the right direction.

About the authors

Daniel Phelps, Director Early Help at Waltham Forest Council, qualified as a social worker in 1999. With a background in the Criminal Justice system, he now has responsibility for a broader range of Children’s Services and Community Safety.

Amana Gordon (AMG@AmanaGordon), Assistant Director for Safeguarding and Family Support at Waltham Forest Council is a qualified social worker who has worked within child protection as both a practitioner and manager. 

Related resources


Bhabra S, Dinos S and Ghate D (2006a) Young People, Risk and Protection: A major survey of secondary schools in on track areas. London: Policy Research Bureau.

Early Intervention Foundation (2015) Preventing Gang and Youth Violence: A review of risk and protective factors. London: Home Office.

Firmin C, Warrington C  and Pearce J (2016) ‘Sexual Exploitation and Its impact on Developing Sexualities and Sexual Relationships: The Need for Contextual Social Work Interventions’. The British Journal of Social Work 46 (8) 2318-2337.

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