Unacceptable Failures in Safeguarding Vulnerable Adolescents: A Call to Action for Comprehensive Government Reform

Sam Preston 13 March 2024 5 min read
Unacceptable Failures in Safeguarding Vulnerable Adolescents: A Call to Action for Comprehensive Government Reform  feature image

Unacceptable Failures in Safeguarding Vulnerable Adolescents: A Call to Action for Comprehensive Government Reform

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the committee which examines the value for money of Government projects, programmes and service delivery by drawing on the work of the National Audit Office and holding government officials to account for the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of public spending, has published a poignant and comprehensive report, which delved into the harrowing reality facing vulnerable adolescents across the United Kingdom.

Their report highlights a systemic breakdown in the safeguarding mechanisms meant to protect them. The committee's findings paint a distressing picture of young lives being marred by unnecessary harm, exacerbated by a labyrinthine maze of government services that fail to provide the necessary support and protection.

At the heart of the issue lies central government's profound failure of ownership and leadership, as highlighted by Dame Meg Hillier MP, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. She stressed the alarming lack of strategic direction and cohesive leadership across Whitehall, which has led to a fragmented approach to safeguarding vulnerable youth. This lack of centralised responsibility leaves vulnerable adolescents at risk of falling through the proverbial cracks, with tragic consequences that reverberate throughout their lives.

One of the most troubling aspects revealed by the report is the stark increase in the overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the youth justice system. Despite commendable efforts to reduce the overall number of children in custody, the disproportionate number of ethnic minority youth entering the system points to deep-rooted issues of inequality and systemic discrimination. The failure of the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to address this glaring disparity highlights a profound lack of curiosity and urgency in tackling issues of racial injustice within the criminal justice system.

Equally distressing is the woefully inadequate provision of mental health support for vulnerable adolescents. Shocking statistics reveal that some young people in Gloucestershire have been forced to wait over 18 months for mental health treatment, exacerbating their already fragile mental well-being. With nearly one in five adolescents in England experiencing probable mental health disorders and a significant increase in mental health issues among young girls, the failure to provide timely support represents a grave dereliction of duty on the part of the Government.

Following the report's publication, HM Government were given two months to respond. This response Treasury Minutes – CP 845 (parliament.uk), examined the following seven PAC findings and recommendations:

  1. The Government has not demonstrated it understands the cumulative scope and impact of avoidable adverse outcomes for vulnerable adolescents.
    • The Government should set out within six months the measures it will use to track whether outcomes for vulnerable adolescents are improving.
    • Annually thereafter, the Government should produce a report on progress in improving outcomes for vulnerable adolescents.
  2. There is reluctant leadership of the challenges faced by vulnerable adolescents, which undermines ownership of the problem.
    • The Department for Education should set out within six months its accountabilities for vulnerable adolescents, the terms of its leadership role and how strategic planning and oversight will work.
  3. Critical local multi-agency safeguarding partnerships are still not working well enough, which risks those vulnerable adolescents that need support and help falling through the gaps.
    • The Government should set out within six months how it plans to improve the way multi-agency safeguarding partnerships work.
  4. It is not clear how lessons and learning from changing threats, serious case reviews and child safeguarding review panels are embedded in day-to-day practice.
    • The Government should set out within six months how it will ensure that learning from national reviews is built into day-to-day practice, including supporting appropriate and timely data sharing by those working with vulnerable adolescents.
    • The Department for Education, in its response to the Care Review, should set out how the revised care system will more effectively address the risks to adolescents posed by extra-familial threats.
  5. We are extremely concerned about the waiting time for children to receive support for mental health issues and about the proportion of adolescent girls seeking help.
    • The Government should report back to the Committee within six months on progress on the implementation of access standards for community and A&E mental health care.
  6. The Ministry of Justice and Home Office seem to lack curiosity about the increase in the proportion of children from ethnic minority backgrounds in youth custody and appear to have no current plan to address the situation.
    • The Ministry of Justice and Home Office should report back within six months on what they understand about ‘what works’ and what action they will take to understand why ethnic minority children make up over half of all children in custody. They should also set out how they will use the understanding to address the issues.
  7. Data-sharing exercises need to be better used to understand the support vulnerable adolescents need. Recommendations:
    • The Department for Education should take the lead in coordinating and setting out within six months an agreed approach to how departments will collect and use data to understand the pathways to adverse outcomes for vulnerable adolescents.

In response to the report's recommendations, HM Government has pledged to take action, albeit with some reservations and without offering specific commitments. While initiatives such as establishing multi-agency safeguarding partnerships and enhancing data sharing are commendable, they do not fully address the systemic issues highlighted by the committee. There is a strong sense of urgency for concrete measures to be swiftly implemented, with clear accountability and a commitment to prioritising the welfare of vulnerable adolescents over bureaucratic obstacles.

As the estimated lifetime cost of adverse outcomes for vulnerable adolescents rises to a staggering £23 billion annually, HM Government must respond to the urgent need for comprehensive reform. This requires not only addressing immediate shortcomings but also fundamentally restructuring the systems and structures that perpetuate harm and injustice. Anything less would betray the most vulnerable members of society and undermine our collective commitment to the well-being of future generations.

Sam Preston

SSS Learning Safeguarding Director

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