Transitional safeguarding – bridging the gap between Children’s and Adults’ Services

17 October 2019

Dr Christine Cocker and Dr Adi CooperDr Christine Cocker and Dr Adi Cooper

When someone turns 18 they legally become an adult. Most young people will manage this move to adulthood well, receiving support from their family, friends and communities. However, this transition is a process, not an event, and not all young people have support readily available.

Given the circumstances that some young people have faced, this isn’t the best time for local authority and health services for children and adolescents to end support and step away, or for a debate about whether young people meet ‘eligibility criteria’ within Adult Services. This is particularly pertinent when there are safeguarding risks and issues.

Having been asked by Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults to run four national workshops on transitional safeguarding to explore this gap with middle managers in local authorities in England, we wondered how this topic would be received by over-stretched staff. We were amazed by the positive response. Participants recognised this as a particularly challenging area of practice and were eager to discuss their concerns and challenges, and also share their successes.

The expectation for attendance was that colleagues had to come as a pair – one from Children’s Services and one from Adult Services.  This was a critical prerequisite for productive conversations across this transition ‘gap’. For some, this workshop was the first time that the pair had met each other. The workshops provided a brilliant opportunity to think together over the course of the day about how to challenge the silos in culture/practice/policy/statutory frameworks and consider how to better meet the safeguarding needs of adolescents and young people.

The workshops have supported participants to think about what they could do locally to shift the blocks and barriers, recognising that this requires ‘sign-up’ throughout the organisational hierarchy, including Chief Executives and Councillors. The good news is that in her 2018 annual report, Lyn Romeo, the Chief Social Worker for Adults, named transitional safeguarding as a priority area in 2019-20. Dez Holmes, Director of Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults, and co-author of the initial scoping paper on this topic (Holmes and Smale, 2018), has presented to the ADCS conference and other events around the country, and received a positive response from senior leaders.    

Clearly there is enthusiasm and willingness at all levels to think differently about services for young people, but there are some challenges that the sector has to face together to bridge this children/adult divide. These include:

  • How to work together in an environment of scarce resources.
  • How to learn from each other despite the legislative differences that govern practice.
  • How to learn from each other and change the dominant discourses regarding risk and rights-based narratives in safeguarding work.
  • How to work effectively with adolescents and young people when undertaking safeguarding work, recognising that adolescence throws up different issues that don’t disappear at age 18.

It can be done. We have seen willingness and commitment to changing current practices. It has been heartening and encouraging to see such dedication and innovation, given the stresses and strains that are the everyday reality of work in the sector. The work of Carlene Firmin and colleagues from the University of Bedfordshire (www.contextualsafeguarding.org.uk) challenges the current children’s safeguarding framework, which is geared toward younger children and views child abuse and neglect as something that happens within people’s homes. This has meant creating new working partnerships to recognise and address the contextual issues and risks that affect young people. It is an approach which offers much food for thought for those safeguarding adults – particularly in terms of seeing place as a key lens for understanding adults’ safety and wellbeing

The challenge remains for Children’s Services to learn from adult social care, for example the Making Safeguarding Personal approach to safeguarding, which puts people firmly at the centre of the safeguarding process and recognises the complexities of risk enablement, achieving resolution and recovery as well as protection. We would argue that the six safeguarding principles of the Care Act 2014 could easily apply to safeguarding work with adolescents and are cognisant with the safeguarding principles of the Children Act 1989. Adopting these approaches to working with young people (‘Making Safeguarding Personal for adolescents?’) could help bridge the transitional safeguarding ‘gap’ between Children’s and Adults’ Services.

About the authors

Dr Christine Cocker is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of East Anglia, specialising in child and family social work.

Dr Adi Cooper OBE is the Care and Health Improvement Advisor for London for the Local Government Association and lead on adult safeguarding.

Related resources

Transitional safeguarding from adolescence to adulthood

Dez Holmes

'Transition' is a process or period of changing from one state to another. It can happen throughout our lives and it's experienced differently by different individuals. Within some aspects of social care, in particular safeguarding, the notion of transition can imply a definitive 'line in the sand' – a point of no return – at the age of 18 years. Children become adults on their eighteenth birthday; assumptions about capacity change overnight and eligibility for safeguarding support is very different depending which side of this line a person falls.

Transitional safeguarding – adolescence to adulthood: Strategic Briefing

Diverse approaches are taken in safeguarding practice across Adults’ and Children’s Services. These differences present challenges for those seeking to effectively safeguard adolescents into adulthood and young people can feel ill-equipped for the change in practice culture they experience as they become adults.

This briefing, jointly produced by Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults, explores how a transitional approach to safeguarding could be developed. It looks at approaches to safeguarding adolescents and young adults fluidly across developmental stages that builds on the best available evidence, learns from both children’s and adults’ safeguarding practice and which prepares young people for their adult lives.

Designed for: Senior leaders and managers involved in safeguarding children and/or adults, in particular those with responsibility for designing and developing services and leading practice.


Holmes, D. and Smale, E. (2018) Transitional Safeguarding: Adolescence to Adulthood. Dartington, Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults.

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