This paper will present a brief overview of doctoral research being carried out with the aim of exploring how professionals from a range of different disciplines understand and categorise complex youth and the concepts of ‘risk’ and ‘need’. Objectives of the study are  to understand the factors and discourses that influence assessments, judgements and decisions of  professionals and their impact on service provision.

Characteristics and definitions of complex youth 

The terms ‘complex youth’ and ‘dually involved’ youth (Huan, Ryan and Herz, 2011) or ‘cross over’ youth (Haight, Bidwell, Marshall, Khatiwoda, 2014) are used to describe a specific cohort of young people who are engaged in youth justice and child protection and welfare services. They are also more likely to be involved with other services relating to mental health, educational support and other support services (Biehal, Sinclair and Wade, 2014; Haight et al., 2014). Irish national policy, Better Outcomes Brighter Futures (BOBF) (2014) defines a group of young people that are at greater disadvantage than the general population of young people and are identified as experiencing greater challenges due to their involvement in a range of different services, including child protection and youth justice services. Implications for mental and emotional health are also significant, with the suicide rate among young people in Ireland, being the fourth highest in the EU within the 15–19 year age range (DCYA, 2014). 


The study was qualitative and adopted a social constructionist standpoint. The data were collected through semi-structured interviews and vignettes. Data were collected from 27 professionals from across six services that engage with complex youth; addiction, child protection and welfare, youth justice, mental health, education welfare and community/ voluntary. The data analysis is ongoing and is using thematic analysis driven by a grounded theory approach. Themes within preliminary findings are presented. 

Findings and discussion 

The provisional findings suggest that a wide range of factors influence how professionals understand, assess and provide services to complex youth, and how risk and need are complex issues influencing these understandings. A significant factor is the challenge that professionals face in multi-agency responses stemming from the diversity of professionals and services engaging with complex youth. Findings suggest that the application of differing assessment models, thresholds of risk and need, and the availability of suitable referral pathways result in these vulnerable young people being met with a patchy and disparate service. 


The findings of the study suggest that complexity of needs, involvement in multiple services, and differing assessment models present challenges for professionals across services in the assessments, judgements, decisions and service provision for complex youth. Moving towards a commissioning environment in which organisations have to prove the effectiveness of their services, based on outcomes, efficiency and value for money, there is a concern that the most vulnerable young people in society will continue to fall through the gaps while services struggle to balance demands of the organisation and funders, while providing a service for complex youth. The challenge for services will be to continue to work together to provide services that are balanced in responding to the individual needs, while demonstrating effective outcomes, to ensure sustainability of services for this vulnerable group. This is a challenge that faces those of us working in the sector, moving into the new unchartered era of service provision.