“Harm doesn’t stop at 18”: Dez Holmes talks to us ahead of How Safe 2021

Last updated: 21 Jan 2021 Topics: Blog Type: Blog
Interview with Dez Holmes

At this year’s How Safe 2021 virtual conference, we are delighted to have Dez Holmes, the Director of Research in Practice, joining us to speak about safeguarding young people effectively.

In this short interview, we talk to her about adolescent safeguarding and what we can all be doing to better protect and prepare young people who may be transitioning into adulthood.

Tell us what you’ll be speaking about at the How Safe 2021 conference.

I’ll be talking about adolescent safeguarding, and in particular thinking about some of the implications of harms that often occur outside the family, such as youth violence, criminal exploitation, ‘county lines’ and sexual exploitation.

One of the things that I’m really keen to talk about is how we can better integrate notions of protection and participation within safeguarding practice. Children deserve as much choice and voice as possible, and this is especially important where they have experienced coercion.

How is this different from current thinking and practice?

This thinking and practice is already emerging, for example, the Department for Education (DfE) funded the Social Care Innovation Programme with a particular focus around adolescents. And local areas are pushing ahead with all sorts of innovation – including engaging with contextual safeguarding (an approach led by University of Bedfordshire and being tested in a number of local areas).

A further area of innovation is that of transitional safeguarding. Harm doesn’t stop at 18. The effects of harm don’t stop at 18. According to research, the adolescent brain doesn’t stop developing at 18. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of young people, services often do stop at 18. Many colleagues across the children’s and adults’ wider sector are working to design more responsive approaches that can better serve teenagers and young adults.

You’ve previously said that “it’s hard to justify our current binary approach to safeguarding, where childhood reaches an abrupt end and services withdraw from young adults based on arbitrary markers such as birthdays”. What needs to change in the system to account for more effective transitional safeguarding?

Transition is a process - not an event – and each young person experience of that transitional process will vary. We need a system that allows practitioners to exercise judgment and creativity, so that our safeguarding support is tailored to individual need and operates with greater fluidity across this life stage. We could all name a mature 15-year-old and a rather child-like 20-year-old. Humanity is complex, our systems needs to lean into that complexity, not to pretend that things are neat and simple.

Local areas across the UK are showing real appetite for innovation in relation to safeguarding young people, and are showing how strategically they can create greater fluidity. I can think of some local authorities where commissioners and their voluntary sector providers have co-produced new solutions such as continuing their services up to 25, or areas where children’s and adult safeguarding partnerships are conjoined at a strategic level.

Transitional safeguarding does not mean that adult social care should ‘pick up’ where children’s social care support ends. We have to be more sophisticated than that. Many young people over 18 do not need statutory adults social care involvement – and indeed non-statutory support is a vital and often more appealing offer to many young people.

When working to safeguard teenagers, we should aim to not only protect them, but also prepare them for adulthood. This includes working in way that empowers them and promotes their resilience.

One important part of resilience is self-efficacy, feeling that you’re able to exercise a degree of control and autonomy in your life. Some of the ways in which we try and safeguard teenagers could arguably be seen as undermining self-efficacy – ‘doing to’ young people, rather than working with them. This is why a rights-based approach is so key, and why we must strive to integrate protective and participative practice.

Young people need to experience positive control within their own lives, with as much voice and choice as possible. This kind of practice can play a role in helping them heal from trauma, and is especially important when young people have been controlled or manipulated by others.

You state it’s important to engage parents in safeguarding and treat them as valid partners. What could professionals and agencies do to help form this engagement?

There’s a conceptualisation of safeguarding being about ‘a problem with the parent’, and this idea doesn’t stack up in terms of extra-familial harm and it can affect the extent to which they’re allowed to express views, opinions and expertise. I think there’s this professional power paradigm ingrained - a ‘we know best’ mindset that needs to be disrupted.

Wherever it’s safe and appropriate to do so, we should be treating parents as partners in their child’s safeguarding. They’re usually going to be around a lot longer than we are. They love their children, and they are experts in their family’s circumstances. We need to operate with humility.

You said in the past that we as a society aren’t always very good at protecting teenagers. What improvements would you suggest?

We vilify teenagers too often. We represent them negatively in the media. We overlook their strengths and their vulnerabilities, and we often assume we know best rather than treat them as experts.

This undervaluing of young people plays out in how we see the workforce. We should value the skills and talents of those who are dedicated to working with young people. Why don’t we have a chief youth worker? Or a chief youth justice worker? Why don’t we hold up those who work with adolescents with the same status as some other groups? Why is residential care so often undervalued?

It reflects how we value citizens in different ways and I think with teenagers, they haven’t always been valued. There’s lots of news and work about youth violence, but not a lot on youth safety. Safeguarding is not simply a task or a process, it’s about empowering people, honouring their rights, and advocating for their value within society.

To hear more from Dez Holmes, join us at our virtual How Safe 2021 conference on 4-5 March 2021. 


About Dez Holmes

Dez Holmes is the Director of Research in Practice, a not-for-profit organisation that supports those who work with children, families and adults to use evidence in their practice and leadership. She is particularly interested in adolescence, risk and participatory practice. Her work on transitional safeguarding includes a strategic briefing on adolescence to adulthood and research into developing a more effective response to risks in adolescence.​

How Safe 2021 conference agenda

The How Safe 2021 agenda provides information about all the keynote speakers attending and the panels and workshops that will take place at the virtual conference.

Download the agenda for more information (PDF)