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Safeguarding Sexually Active Young People

Safeguarding Sexually Active Young People

Nationally 26% of women and 30% of men report that they had sexual intercourse by the age of 16 (Wellings et al 2001). All young people have a right to confidential advice from professionals about sexual health / sexually transmitted infections, contraception and relationships.

The purpose of these procedures is to clarify the process / responsibilities of practitioners with regards to assessing the risks and identify cause for concern in under age sexually active young people.

This chapter should be read in conjunction with Guidance for Professionals Working with Sexually Active Young People under the Age of 18.

The minimum age at which young people of either gender and whatever sexual orientation can consent to have lawful sexual intercourse, is sixteen years of age.

With respect to a child under the age of 13, her/his actual consent to any sexual activity is irrelevant because the law presumes (s)he is incapable of informed consent. Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, rape or assault by penetration of a child under thirteen may attract a sentence of imprisonment for life.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 makes provision for young people of less than sixteen years old, to be offered confidential professional advice on contraception, condoms, pregnancy and abortion.

A person is not guilty of aiding, abetting or counselling a sexual offence against a child where (s)he is acting for the purpose of:

  • Protecting a child from pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection
  • Protecting the physical safety of a child
  • Promoting a child's emotional well-being by the giving of advice

This exception, in statute, covers not only health professionals, but also anyone who acts to protect a child, for example teachers, school nurses, Connexions personal advisers, YOT officers, youth workers, social workers and parents.

The duty of confidentiality owed to a person under 16 in any setting is the same as that owed to any other person, but the right to confidentiality is not absolute.

Where there is a serious child protection risk to the health, safety or welfare of a child or others this outweighs her/his right to privacy. In these circumstances professionals should act in accordance with the Contacts and Referrals Procedure

Research and experience have shown repeatedly that keeping children safe from harm requires professionals and others to share information. Such information sharing must be in accordance with legal requirements and professional guidance link to Information Sharing and Confidentiality Procedure.

All children, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, who are believed to be engaged in or planning to be engaged in, sexual activity must have their needs for health education, support and/or protection assessed by the agency involved.

This assessment must be carried out in accordance with the child protection procedures within this manual and professional / agency guidance.

In assessing the nature of any particular behaviour, it is essential to look at the facts of the actual relationship between those involved.

The following non exhaustive considerations must be taken into account in assessing the extent to which the child (or other children) may be suffering or at risk of harm:

  • The age of the child: the younger the child the stronger the presumption must be that sexual activity is a matter of concern
  • The level of maturity and understanding of the child and her / his competence to understand and consent to sexual activity
  • Power imbalances, including through age and development: size, gender, sexuality, levels of sexual knowledge, learning ability
  • Power imbalance where sexual partner in position of trust or authority
  • Where a young person has a learning disability or communication difficulty that could hinder their capacity to disclose that they have been abused
  • Use of overt aggression, coercion or bribery
  • Use of alcohol and / or drugs were to facilitate the activity
  • If the young person's own behaviour e.g. the use of drugs, means (s)he is unable to make an informed choice
  • Any attempts to secure secrecy by the sexual partner beyond what is usual in teenage relationships e.g. his/her identity being a secret
  • If the sexual partner is known by agencies to have concerning relationships with other young people
  • If the young person denies or minimises adult concerns
  • Presence of a sexually transmitted infection in a very young person
  • If the relationship involves behaviours considered to be 'grooming' in the context of sexual exploitation
  • Where sex has been used to gain favours, e.g. cigarettes, clothes, CDs, trainers, alcohol, drugs etc
  • Where the young person has a lot of money or other valuable things which cannot be accounted for
  • Knowledge about the child's circumstances / background, including any familial child sex offences
  • The child's behaviour e.g. withdrawn, anxious

If there are concerns relating to any of the above factors, these should be discussed with the young person and (s)he should be informed that you will need to seek advice.

Throughout the risk assessment process the young person should be offered treatment and advice if they are considered competent to understand the treatment proposed (Fraser competent assessment).

Where a risk assessment on a child aged fourteen to fifteen years is satisfactory the practitioner can use her/his professional judgement as to what advice and support is needed.

Where a child is aged thirteen to fourteen years of age the practitioner should discuss the issue with her/his child protection lead. If the advice is to refer to Children's Services the child should be informed of this.

Children under thirteen do not under any circumstances have the legal capacity to consent to sexual activity. A sexually active child of twelve years and under should be offered the appropriate advice and support needed to protect them but advised that a referral will be made to Children's Services who will have a Strategy Discussion with the Police Joint Child Protection Investigation Team (JCPIT) as to what further action should be taken.

Last Updated: December 7, 2023