Research Report: The Effects of Social Service Contact on Teenagers in England

Study finds that the involvement of social services in the lives of young people is not always beneficial

Authors: Morag Henderson, Jonathan Scourfield, Sin Yi Cheung, Elaine Sharland and Luke Sloan. Cardiff University and the University of Sussex

Published by: Research on Social Work Practice, November 2014


Studies into the effectiveness of social services interventions tend to be small scale, and focus only on those who have received support. Researchers from Cardiff University and the University of Sussex wanted to carry out a large scale piece of work comparing the outcomes of young people who had contact with social services with those of their peers who did not. The study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation and part of a larger programme of research, used data on 15,770 young people from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England. Of those, 1,184 – eight per cent – had been in contact with statutory social services.

The analysis focused in particular on young people who had contact with social services because of their own behaviour, and looked at outcomes including mental health, educational achievement and aspiration, as well as the extent young people felt they had control over their lives.

The young people in the study were interviewed annually for seven years, with the researchers using data from the first four interviews. As far as possible, the researchers isolated the effects of social service contact, taking into account factors that could predict involvement of social services rather than result from it. Overall, they found contact with social services in response to a young person's behavioural problems did not have a positive effect on their mental health or life chances, instead having a negative effect or making no difference.

In terms of GCSEs, social services contact was found to be detrimental, with those receiving contact on average suffering the equivalent of a grade lower for four GCSEs or losing one "good" pass. The odds of young people who received social service contact applying to university were not significantly different from those without contact, but these young people were less likely to believe that if they applied, they would be accepted. Young people with social services contact were more likely to agree that success in life was down to luck or that they would not have much of a chance in life, showing they did not feel in control of their own destiny.

The report authors say more data is needed to fully understand the findings of the study, which did not include factors such as child abuse and neglect, did not distinguish between different types of intervention, and measured outcomes over a short period. They say social services intervention may have improved other outcomes for young people that the study did not measure.


The researchers say: "If social services contact either makes no difference to young people or makes things worse, urgent attention is needed to the content and style of intervention." They say attention should be paid to the role of social workers in supporting young people's formal education. They also suggest a strategy of non-intervention might be best in some cases, leaving young people to "grow out of" their behaviour.

One explanation for the negative impact of social services contact could be the stigma attached, which creates a negative self-perception affecting the outcomes of young people. The report recommends practitioners should explicitly discuss the issue of stigmatisation with service users and aim to identify strategies to try to overcome it.

Another potential factor is the "learned helplessness" that young people can experience after becoming reliant on social services, rendering them unable to identify solutions or opportunities. The report urges social services providers to work hard to avoid creating dependence, and think of social services contact as a reciprocal process of helping or enabling, rather than "intervention" or "treatment".


  • When interventions harm: Peer groups and problem behaviour, Thomas Dishion, Joan McCord, Francois Poulin, American Psychologist, September 1999. A study finding peer group work during early adolescence, under some circumstances, inadvertently reinforces problem behaviour.
  • Former Stockholm child protection cases as young adults: Do outcomes differ between those that received services and those that did not?, Bo Vinnerljung, Knut Sundell, Cecelia Andree Lofholm, Eva Humlesjo, Children and Youth Services Review, January 2006. A study of negative outcomes reported by adults who had contact with child protection services as children.
  • Intervening to improve outcomes for vulnerable young people: a review of the evidence, Department for Education, January 2011. Includes social services interventions.

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