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Adolescent Safety Framework: Safeguarding young people at risk of exploitation and missing in response to COVID-19 pandemic

Contextual risk and COVID-19

The current restrictions imposed on day-to-day life are essential to safeguard our young people, their families and our local communities from the impact of COVID-19. Social distancing and lockdown requirements have notable implications for young people who experience harm outside of their homes.

Current limitations laid out by the government compel young people to stay at home, away from the extra-familial environments where some will have been experiencing harm – in their peer groups, at school and in their neighbourhoods. However, this does not necessarily generate safety for these young people.

While enforced lockdown may helpfully separate some young people from harmful situations, it also separates them from protective friends, school environments, trusted adults and locations that may offer respite from difficult home environments. There is the potential to create a greater risk of exploitation, with increasing activity online presenting a particular danger and reduced direct contact from key professionals and organisations making young people less visible. The activity may become more covert and harder to identify and intervene with.

Adolescents may struggle to balance the risks associated with coronavirus with the pull to be with their friends over the coming weeks. This may lead to increased conflict and tensions within family homes and lead to increasing pressures on families to manage the care of young people. In addition, for some young people who are being exploited by people or situations outside of their homes and threatened with violence, intimidation or debts, the need to leave their homes and be in public environments may feel safer than staying inside.

It is anticipated that the behaviour of both perpetrators and victims will evolve in response to COVID-19 as social distancing measures interrupt some of the well-established elements of exploitation. It will be important to identify themes as soon as possible so responses can be adapted to address new trends. Themes will be identified through a number of different mechanisms:

  • Daily triage within Early Help
  • Weekly Locality Partnership Meetings
  • Fortnightly MACE chairs meeting
  • Monthly MACE

The ASF and Exploitation hub continues to provide support to consider extra-familial risk for professionals, within their existing assessments of vulnerability during this time.

It’s important we all stay vigilant in our communities and are able to take appropriate steps if we are concerned about young people who are not at home during the lockdown. The Children’s Society #LookCloser campaign, has developed guidance on how to spot signs of exploitation and how to report it.

Variations to ASF practice directions during COVID-19

Individual Pathway – Safer Me CIN/ TAF, Safer Me Plus

We are particularly worried about the children most at risk, including children in care, children at risk of abuse or neglect and exploitation and children at risk of homelessness.

Those young people open to Children’s Social Work will continue to be managed within social work teams. Those identified as being most at risk in relation to exploitation should be recorded on the centralised CE tracker. There is a manager from each locality that has oversight of this tracker for their respective area. Expectation is that locality leads will liaise with relevant social workers for high risk cases to ensure there are plans in place.

In accordance with the Management Action Note 06: Assessment of vulnerability and risk (COVID-19) Social Work Risk Assessments CIVID, every young person receiving a Social Work Service requires a regular assessment of risk. This assessment must include consideration of young people who are missing, at risk of exploitation, subject to harm outside of the home and experiencing contextual risk within it and the subsequent Rag Rating of vulnerability.

Safer Me assessments, that identify exploitation risk as Medium or High need to continue to be reviewed 3 monthly.

Case management of young people on Safer Me Plus plans will have additional monitoring from the specialist Independent Safeguarding & Reviewing Officer within QARSS.

If face to face intervention is not possible, multi agencies should consider alongside the family how support and intervention can be offered in line with the care plan either virtually (telephone, skype) or by another means if possible.

The government’s safeguarding guidance to Local Authority Children’s Services is available here.

For those young people who are not open to social work and where they are considered to be at risk of significant harm as a result of exploitation, should be referred to Children’s Social Care via a MASH enquiry using the Safer Me Assessment.

Context Conferences Pathway within the ASF

Due to the impact of COVID-19, availability of professionals and key stakeholders to participate in context conferences will be significantly diminished over the coming weeks. Furthermore, many of the interventions from such conferences tend to involve groups and community spaces. Due to requirements of social distancing, it will not be possible to implement many of these interventions.  As such, School Context Conferences (chaired by DSL) and Neighbourhood Context Conferences (chaired by CSP) will be suspended for the foreseeable future.

The Peer Group Context Conferences (chaired by a specialist ISRO within QARSS) will continue to be held virtually via tele-conferencing facility. Whilst implementation of a number of contextual interventions will be limited under current circumstances, there remains the risk that we will lose sight of our most vulnerable young people and their activity within their peer groups and communities. Therefore, meetings will be held to ensure that information continues to be shared between relevant agencies and where possible, actions identified that will contribute to the safeguarding of those young people.

All referrals for peer group context conferences will continue to go via the MASH and Exploitation Hub for triage. Consideration will also be given as to whether any referrals that involve multiple young people should be responded to under the Complex Strategy procedures. In that event, the Exploitation Hub will liaise with QARSS accordingly.

MACE meetings

MACE meetings will continue to be held virtually in each locality on a monthly basis. Additional cover for chairing these meetings will be provided by the REACH Team Manager and/or Exploitation Coordinator as required. In response to COVID-19, a greater focus will be given to the following:

  • Missing young people, irrespective of whether open to Children’s Social Work or not.
  • Hotspots and Locations of concern for exploitation, with a likely increase in focus on private dwellings and online activity.
  • Persons of concern
  • Referrals for individual young people will continue as normal and will seek to explore wider networks
  • Emerging themes as landscape of exploitation evolves during the lockdown.

Missing children and young people

REACH will undertake all Return Home Interviews (RHI’s) for Devon children. This includes both those open to Children’s Social Work and those who are not. Key information from RHI’s will be shared with police as required. Other Local Authority children will continue to be managed under the existing procedures. Should numbers of missing children become unmanageable, or REACH capacity restricted due to staff absence, RHI arrangements will need to be reviewed and consideration given to resourcing options.

Strategic oversight: Incident Management Team

A multi-agency Incident Management Team has been set up and will meet weekly. This forum will provide strategic oversight of vulnerable children who fall into a number of categories. This includes exploitation and missing. The main aims of the Incident Management Team in relation to exploitation and missing are to:

  • Ensure continuity of critical service delivery for children and families
  • Receive exception reporting from Exploitation sub-group and MACEs
  • Oversee and report on any rise in all forms of exploitation/ missing
  • Identify emerging risks/issues/ gaps needing decision, action, and/or escalation
  • Offer targeted support as new and emerging risks are identified.


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