What protects the therapists from complaints from parents leading to investigations by the police?
- First, how do we define who is a child? Generally, a child is defined as anyone under the age of 16 in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (SOA 2003), but there are some offences designed to give greater protection to those under the age of 13, and others where the definition of ‘child’ extends to anyone under the age of 18. A child aged under 13 is deemed to be legally incapable of consenting to sexual activity, so any sexual activity with a child under 13 years is illegal. The Sexual Offences Act also changed the definition of a child from under 16 years to under 18 years (SOA 2003 s45(2)).
- If a child contacts a StopSo therapist directly for help and support, we need to consider where we sit in the law. Many definitions of grooming include having ‘sexually explicit conversations’ either in person or online. So this may mean the child revealing explicit images they have viewed online, or revealing sexual fantasies they have themselves experienced. And it also may mean the sexual psychoeducation that you may provide in the therapeutic process to inform the child or to correct misinformation. If the child has not disclosed to his or her parents that he or she is speaking to you, then you are instantly putting yourself into an invidious position. And although in law, the allegation of grooming has to consider the intent of the adult towards the child, complaints from parent to either the police or your professional body can instantly put you on the backfoot, and complaints procedures have to go through due process, and not be dismissed. Similarly, if the child asked you to meet them in a different place to talk for fear of parents hearing, you may be accused of potential abduction, which again the police would need to investigate and to interview everyone involved.
- So as practitioners, we need to be clear about who we are, how we are working and to be transparent with another party at all times. The first party to consider is the parent, foster parent or legal guardian. You need to have their knowledge and consent. We also have a duty of care to the child, to make sure that any therapeutic process is in his or her own best interests, remembering our own power dynamic as the therapist as the adult and therefore the child can be easily influenced.
- If the child insists that they have no wish to have their parents informed, then there needs to be a discussion with the child about this. If the child is Gillick competent, one could argue that they are entitled to have authority over their own treatment, especially if they have the means to pay for it, thinking of those aged 16-17 years. And the therapist must never blur boundaries on any level, i.e. no unscheduled meetings, nothing impromptu or unplanned, or unknown about to others.
- For a child under the age of 7 years, it is presumed they are not able to enter into a (therapeutic) contract. An older child can, therefore, enter into a contract. However, the law also assumes that the child cannot understand the implications of a contract. So, whatever caveat is drafted into the contract, he or she will remain protected to the disadvantage of the other party (i.e. you). Further, a contract with a minor is voidable, which means he or she is able to cancel any contract at any time before reaching the age of 18 and for a reasonable period after that time. There is no requirement for him or her to have a justifiable reason for this, it can be done on a whim or where it may be advantageous to the child to do so.
- If you are working with a child as part of a private referral, including a second party in the work, for example, sending a peer supervisor copies of referrals and correspondence to ensure he or she knows in advance about what you plan to do in each session, would be wise. Total transparency with notes and procedures are key. Notes need to be thorough, and written in an accessible format without jargon that any reader (including the child) may understand.
- You may need to consider working differently to your norm – so mapping out a session plan with brief points that you may want to cover in a session, and creating child-friendly handouts would be invaluable. And remember the developmental stage of the child and operate on that level rather than adult to child.
- If the child is in the care of Social Services, then there is the opportunity of working as part of a multi-disciplinary team. It is not in the child’s interest to be too precious about confidentiality in these circumstances, especially when the child may be a risk to themselves or a risk to other children in the care home.
- Always share your notes with a second party (your supervisor, or someone such as a professional who is part of the child’s professional network under safeguarding). You should never work in isolation or alone with a child. This will breach the ability of the child to be fully safeguarded in terms of the child-adult power dynamic.
- Finally, professionalism. Are you trained to work with children? Does your insurance cover you for working with children? Is your supervisor trained/skilled at working with children? Have you undertaken a safeguarding training, either in person or online?
- Further information:
Copely, B & Forryan , B (!997) Therapeutic Work with Children and Young People Cassell Education
Triesman, K. (2017) A Therapeutic Treasure Box for Working with Children and Adolescents with Developmental Trauma: Creative Techniques and Activities (Therapeutic Treasures Collection)
Dr Terri van Leeson & Dr Glyn Hudson Allez, 2020