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Young People who use Substances

This guidance is for use by specialist substance misuse professionals, and for professionals from all safeguarding agencies. It is intended to help promote young people’s health & wellbeing within the context of substance misuse.

Professionals may encounter substance use among the young people they work with. It is important that individual workers are able to respond appropriately to this and signpost to further specialist support.

Some young people experiment with drugs and / or alcohol as they grow up. Most young people who experiment with drugs will never go beyond experimentation. Some will go on to use drugs and / or alcohol in a controlled way (‘recreational use’). For some however their use of drugs and / or alcohol may become problematic and affect many aspects of their life.

Drug and / or alcohol misuse is known to contribute to a range of poor outcomes for young people, for example: poor health, poor mental health, educational attainment, family breakdown, economic wellbeing, and offending behaviour.

This includes tobacco, alcohol, volatile substances, prescribed medication, "over the counter" medication, and illicit substances e.g. cannabis, ecstasy, heroin, New Psychoactive Substances (NPS).

Substance use can be defined as the taking of substances in an experimental and/or recreational manner. It is acknowledged that harm may still occur through substance use, though it may not be immediately apparent.

Substance misuse is formally defined as the continued misuse of any mind-altering substance that severely affects a person's physical and mental health, social situation and responsibilities.

Significant Harm arises when young person's substance misuse places them in a situation of risk. This misuse of substances will cause, or is likely to cause, the young person to fail significantly to maintain their health and development.

Research has shown that certain groups of young people have a higher incidence of drug and / or alcohol misuse than the average, and the potential to develop drug and / or alcohol problems as they grow up:

  • Young people involved in criminal justice system;
  • Young people who are Looked After by the local authority;
  • Young people leaving local authority care;
  • Young people excluded from mainstream education or persistent truants;
  • Young homeless;
  • Young people being sexually exploited;
  • Children whose parents / siblings have drug and / or alcohol problems.

This is not to say that all these young people will use substances or develop problems, but it makes it more important that they receive good education, information and advice about substances and substance use, as well as early support and specialist help where necessary.

Drug and / or alcohol use by a young person does not on its own constitute Significant Harm. However there may be circumstances where the young person’s drug and / or alcohol misuse raises safeguarding children concerns, for example:

  • The identified substance use is unusual for a person of this age;
  • The substance misuse is becoming increasingly chaotic or dangerous;
  • The substance use / misuse is leading to crime or exploitation by others, including sexual exploitation - see Child Exploitation (including Child Sexual Exploitation and Child Criminal Exploitation) Procedure;
  • The substance use / misuse is life threatening or seriously detrimental to health;
  • The young person is caring for another child while under the influence of substances;
  • An adult is involved with the substance use / misuse (e.g. the young person is being injected by an adult);
  • The parent or sibling is using drugs and / or misusing alcohol (refer to Parents who Misuse Substances Procedure);
  • During contact with the young person non-substance related safeguarding children concerns are identified.

In cases where safeguarding children concerns are identified due to substance misuse a referral into Cumberland Safeguarding Hub or Westmorland and Furness Safeguarding Hub should be made in accordance with the Cumbria Multi-Agency Thresholds Guidance and the supporting document Cumbria Understanding The Level of Need and Practice Response which can be used alongside the Threshold Guidance.

Confidentiality is a means of providing young people with security and much needed support without the fear of reprisal. This is a more complex issue as the young people are engaging in what could be an illegal act, which is at the same time harmful and possibly life-threatening. Despite this, young people will need help and they may not engage with services if their confidentiality is not respected.

There are however circumstances when a professional should breach confidentiality, this includes when there is an immediate concern for the safety of the young person or that of a third party. This could arise from information given by the young person, a member of the family or a third party. It is particularly important in safeguarding children that information given about family or home life, which might have safeguarding implications for siblings, is referred to the appropriate service. For further guidance see Information Sharing Protocol.

The following can be used as a guide to establish whether confidential information regarding a young person who is using substances should be shared with other agencies:

  • The age and maturity of the child;
  • The degree and seriousness of the substance misuse;
  • Whether harm or risk is continuing or increasing;
  • The general context in which substance use is set.

Any breach of confidentiality should provide appropriate information but should not extend to other areas of the young person's present or past life that are not relevant to the situation.

Children who have suffered, or are likely to suffer, Significant Harm

If a worker is concerned that a child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, Significant Harm, a referral must be made as soon as possible to the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub - see Reporting Concerns – Professionals Procedure.

Last Updated: April 10, 2024