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Responding to complex needs

Updated: 21 June 2017

What's Important To Us

Working with children and young people who have complex needs requires a multi-disciplinary approach; no one agency can meet these needs satisfactorily or safely on their own. Taking this approach will ensure these children and young people are receiving the right response from the right people within the best possible timeframe.

There is no ‘quick fix’ option when it comes to working with children and young people who have complex needs. These needs will likely have built up over months and even years, and will not be easily resolved. Working with, and responding to, children and young people with complex needs requires good planning, widespread consultation, and a willingness to think creatively about how the needs can best be met within the child or young person’s own community.

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What are complex needs?

Rankin & Regan (2004) identify the essence of complex needs as implying both breadth (multiple needs that are interrelated or interconnected) and depth of need (profound, severe, serious or intense needs).

According to Rosengard, Laing, Ridley & Hunter (2007), children and young people with complex needs may have experienced (or be experiencing) one or a combination of the factors including mental illness, physical or intellectual disability, developmental delay, substance abuse, challenging behaviour at school and/or home, poor living conditions, abuse or neglect, harmful sexual behaviour, and criminal behaviour. The level of complexity will vary depending on the child or young person, their support system (and its capabilities), and the identified need or needs.

How should we respond?

The impact of having a child or young person with complex needs in a family/whānau can have both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, the family/whānau may be proud about the accomplishments that the child or young person has made; on the other they may feel sad that the child or young person has missed certain opportunities as a result of their complex needs. In most cases, families/whānau will demonstrate incredible resilience and develop coping strategies to help them respond to their child or young person’s challenging behaviour. When families/whānau are struggling to respond to these complex needs, interventions need to empower them so that they remain in control of their lives and the child or young person’s life (McConkey, Barr & Baxter, 2007).

In working with children and young people who have complex needs, keep in mind the following core values:

  • Parents know their children better than anyone else so treat them respectfully as equal partners
  • Professional supports need to be co-ordinated and responsive to the needs of individual children, young people and families/whānau
  • Risks to the child or young person need to be managed in ways that provide safety and a quality of life for them and their family/whānau
  • Partnership working across disciplines and agencies is essential (McConkey, et al., 2007).

When responding to children and young people with complex needs, there are some key things we can do to help us with our assessment and to make a successful plan:

Encourage and assist the child or young person to participate in decision-making and planning about their lives – Even when a child or young person has complex needs, they still have a voice and a right to express their views about what needs to happen for them. This may not be easy to do, depending on the needs that the child or young person presents with, and you may need to draw on the experience of others to help you (see next point), but their ownership of their plan is vital.

Consult widely – If a child or young person has a disability, talk to your regional disability advisor as early as possible to ensure that the assessment and plan have captured the main issues and looked at the wide scope of interventions available to the child or young person. Are there other professionals or agencies that we should be consulting with (e.g. paediatrician, special health unit or school) that could meet the child or young person’s needs better?

Do your research – Take the time to become a ‘pocket expert’ about a child or young person’s disability or special need. The internet, library and support agencies (e.g. Epilepsy Society) can provide educational material that will give depth to your assessment and inform your intervention. It will also be important to connect families/whānau with local support agencies that can give them practical advice and information.

Give support – Families/whānau often struggle to provide care for a child or young person with complex needs and continued crises can discourage a family/whānau to the degree that they want to ‘walk away’. We need to be attentive to the support needs of the family/whānau, involve them in the decision-making about the child or young person, and discuss their support needs with providers. Make sure that there are regular liaison meetings between you, service providers and the child or young person and their family/whānau to keep the child or young person’s needs at the forefront of decision-making.

Provide a ‘one team’ response – If a child with complex needs offends, family/whānau are looking for an Oranga Tamariki response that is professional, effective and timely. The difference between youth justice and care and protection is an organisational issue, not a family/whānau issue, and we need to provide a response that best meets the needs of the child and their family/whānau. A robust plan will be made if youth justice and care and protection meet together following allocation and continue to meet or consult to ensure that the plan remains robust. Use the child and family consult (PDF 359 KB) or young person and family consult (PDF 291 KB) to identify gaps and make decisions about what response is needed. Remember, when a child offends a sound and collaborative plan will ensure that this first offence is their only offence.

Seek specialist knowledge – When a child or young person is exhibiting harmful or concerning sexual behaviour, they still have the needs for belonging, education and family/whānau relationships that all children and young people have. Assess these needs, recognise the importance of keeping other children and young people safe, and provide the right therapeutic interventions. When a child or young person is involved in harmful or concerning sexual behaviour or this is suspected, it is important to access specialist knowledge to assess risk and therapeutic needs to bring about the best outcome for the child or young person.

Responding to particular complex needs

As practitioners, working with some of our country's most vulnerable and at risk children and young people, we need to be particularly aware of and knowledgeable about the following complex needs:

Substance abuse: The teenage years are often associated with drug use, usually alcohol and marijuana, and this is being seen more and more in our younger population as well. Multiple substance misuse tends to be common, with two-thirds of New Zealand adolescents with marijuana dependence also having a dependence on alcohol (Fraser & Tilyard, 2010). Research completed with secondary school students in 2007 found that 72 per cent of students had used alcohol, and 61 per cent were currently drinking alcohol. Of those students currently drinking alcohol, 30 per cent reported drinking weekly or more often, and 34 per cent said they had engaged in binge drinking (5 or more drinks within 4 hours) in the previous four weeks (Fortune, Watson, Robinson, Fleming & Denny, 2010).

Substance abuse can result in immediate and long-term health and social problems (including mental illness) and can affect intellectual development and educational achievement. Certain factors like a lack of connection with their family/whānau, school and community also put young people at risk of substance abuse (Stone & Matthews, 2009). Genetics also play a role, with research showing that children of addicted parents are more at risk for alcoholism and other drug abuse than are other children (Goodwin, 1985; Kumpfer, 1999).

When you are working with a child or young person who you believe is abusing alcohol and/or drugs, talk with them about the extent of their substance use and its impact on their day-to-day life and for children aged 12 years and older, apply the SACS screen. If you find that substance abuse is an issue for them, remember there are drug and alcohol specialists within your local community who can help you figure out what to do next – give them a call to see what they suggest. Also, your office colleagues will no doubt have a wealth of knowledge about what they have already tried and what has and hasn’t worked that they can pass on to you.

Mental illness: Around 20 per cent of children and adolescents in New Zealand are estimated to have mental health disorders or problems, with similar types of disorders being reported across cultures, and about half of mental health disorders begin before the age of 14 years (Fraser & Tilyard, 2010). The most prevalent mental health disorders among young people in New Zealand are anxiety disorders, depression and conduct disorder. Males tend to have higher rates of conduct disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder while depression and anxiety disorders are higher for females. In general, mental illness in young people leads to emotional distress, impaired functioning, physical ill-health and increased suicide risk. As well, young people who present with one disorder are at increased risk of other disorders. For example, concurrent symptoms of anxiety and behavioural disturbances are present in almost all cases of depression, between 50% and 80% of young people with depression will also meet the criteria for another mental disorder, and conduct disorder and/or oppositional disorder occur in around 25% of young people with depression (NZGG, 2008).

Mental illness is particularly common amongst children and young people who are involved with Oranga Tamariki, with one in five having a formal mental health diagnosis recorded on their file (Department of Child, Youth and Family Services, 2000). Conduct and oppositional disorders are likely to be present in 85 per cent of the population of young people who offend, while 30 to 40 percent of children and young people we work with are likely to suffer from a depressive or anxiety disorder (Department of Child, Youth and Family Services, 2000).

Working with children and young people who have a mental illness can be challenging. It is often difficult to know what to do or where to go to get help for them. Added to this, families/whānau of these children and young people will often be stressed and tired from trying to manage and provide support. We need to develop a two-pronged approach whereby we support and advocate for the child or young person while also supporting their family/whānau.

Keep in mind that culture and religious beliefs can influence the way a child or young person and their family/whānau view mental illness. Even if you (as the social worker) are the same ethnicity as the child or young person, don’t make the assumption that you will both share the same world view. When working with a child or young person who is from a different culture to your own, get advice from colleagues in your office, an appropriate cultural advisor, kaumatua, kuia, or religious or community leader.

Early involvement of mental health services is vital to ensure children and young people are appropriately assessed and provided with the safety, services and supports they need. Also, pay particular attention to children and young people who are displaying suicidal ideation or self harming behaviour. Use the appropriate screens and assessments and follow up any concerns immediately with the right people. If you have the slightest concern, talk to your supervisor or practice leader to make sure you are on the right path.

Disability:Data gathered by Statistics New Zealand in 2006 found that 10 per cent of children and young people in New Zealand aged 14 years and under had a disability. Of these children and young people, the majority (46 per cent) had special education needs which included learning or developmental difficulties and learning difficulties such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The next most common disability types were chronic condition or health problems such as severe asthma, cerebral palsy and diabetes (39 per cent), and psychiatric or psychological disabilities (21 per cent). Just over half of children and young people with disability (52 per cent) were noted as having a single disability; the remaining (48 per cent) had multiple disabilities (Statistics New Zealand, 2007).

Remember that a child or young person with a disability will have similar hopes and dreams to others their age, even though they will likely face greater challenges and barriers to achieving their dreams. Think about what you and others in your community can do to help them reach their full potential.

When working with a family/whānau who are caring for a child or young person with a disability, your assessment needs to include conversations with the family/whānau about what supports they require (i.e. respite, home help, educational support) so they can provide the best care possible. Keep in mind that families/whānau in lower socio-economic areas and low income households are generally less likely to know what supports are available to them and how they can access these supports (Ministry of Health, 2004).

Talk to your regional disability advisor about your next steps, and make a referral to the Needs Assessment and Service Co-ordination (NASC) service who will help identify the child or young person’s needs and the disability support services available to them. Put your mind to thinking about what this child or young person needs now and in the future. If the child or young person is in our custody and likely to remain there until they are at least 17 years old, find out how you can make sure they have a smooth transition to adult services. What work needs to be done now to involve the child or young person (and their family/whānau) in the decisions around this?

Working with tamariki or whānau who have a disability

Harmful sexual behaviour:It is estimated that children and young people are responsible for about one-third of all sexual abuse against children (Grubin, 1998), although the actual incidents of sexual abuse are likely to be higher due to low reporting rates. Other research by Venziano & Veneziano (2002) found that of all adult sex offenders, around half had committed their first offence as a young person with subsequent escalation in frequency and severity. Children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour are likely to be male (92 per cent), have social skills deficits, lack sexual knowledge, and have high levels of social anxiety (Righthand & Welch, 2001; Veneziano & Veneziano, 2002). For some children and young people, the combination of the above characteristics can create difficulties for them in forming healthy relationships and lead them to meet their needs through unhealthy and abusive interactions with children.

Any work undertaken with a child or young person who displays harmful sexual behaviour requires a coordinated inter-agency approach which helps them to be accountable for their behaviour and make the necessary changes while also protecting the community. The earlier that the child or young person receives help and support, the more likely it is that their change in behaviour will be long-lasting. The severity of their sexual behaviour will also need to be considered – for lower level harmful sexual behaviour (e.g. masturbating in public) it may be more appropriate to provide in-home support; a higher level of harmful sexual behaviour (e.g. sexual intercourse with a child) could require specialist residential treatment. Talk with your supervisor about the best approach to take.

It is important to also consider the possibility that the child or young person’s harmful sexual behaviour may have stemmed from abuse they themselves have been subjected to and they will need extra support to help them address any residual feelings from this experience.

For children and young people who have been victims of sexual abuse, whether by an adult or a peer, we need to think about the impact that the abuse has had on them. Consider the range of emotions that the child or young person might be experiencing – guilt, fear, isolation, sadness, anger, helplessness, shame. Research shows that children and young people who have been sexually abused are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, display inappropriate sexualised behaviour, experience anxiety and depression, negative peer involvement, self-harming and behavioural problems, and that these adverse effects may well endure into adulthood (Cleaver & Webb, 2007).

We need to be sensitive to what the child or young person is going through, and provide them with the specialist support they need to get their life back on track. Remind the child or young person that they did nothing wrong, and be there for them when things aren’t going so well. Keep an eye on their state of mind, and if you are concerned about their mental health, get help for them immediately.

Offending behaviour: According to a report released by the Ministry of Justice in 2010, apprehension rates of children and young people aged 10 to 16 years declined from 1995 to 2008, especially in the last three years. The rate was highest in 1996 at 2,469, dropping to 1,908 in 2008. However, while overall offending decreased, the rate of violent apprehensions among young people aged 14 to 16 years rose – from 167 per 10,000 people in 1995 to 198 in 2008. The number of young people who were prosecuted also increased, up to 28.1 per cent of apprehensions in 2007 from 13.2 per cent in 1995 (Ministry of Justice, 2010).

A lot of times, child and young people who offend will also be dealing with care and protection issues, and we need to work together as an organisation to meet their needs. It wont be important to the child or young person and their family/whānau who helps them, just as long as they receive the assistance and support they need. Use the Tuituia assessment framework (PDF 338 KB) to complete your assessment of the child or young person’s strengths, risks and needs and to inform the plan for the child or young person. Remember to involve the child or young person, their family/whānau and other professionals in planning and decision-making – children and young people have the right to have the chance to say what they want their life to look like and are likely to have better outcomes if we give them this chance.


Department of Child, Youth and Family Services (2000). Towards Well-being: Responding to the Needs of Young People. Wellington.

Grubin, D. (1998). Sex Offending against Children: Understanding the Risk. Police Research Series paper 99. London, Home Office

Fortune, S., Watson, P., Robinson, E., Fleming, T., Merry, S., & Denny, S. (2010). Youth’07: The Health and Wellbeing of Secondary School Students in New Zealand: Suicide Behaviours and Mental Health in 2001 and 2007. Auckland: The University of Auckland.

Fraser, T. & Tilyard, M. (2010). Childhood depression. Best Practice Journal: Special Edition, Dunedin.

Goodwin, D.W. (1985). Alcoholism and genetics. Archives of General Psychiatry, 42, 171-174.

Kumpfer, K.L. (1999). Outcome measures of interventions in the study of children of substance-abusing parents. Pediatrics: Supplement, 103 (5): 1128-1144.

McConkey, R., Barr, O. & Baxter, R. (2007). Complex Needs: The Nursing Response to Children and Young People with Complex Physical Health Care Needs. Belfast, Ireland: Department of Health, Social Sciences and Public Safety/University of Ulster.

Ministry of Health (2004). Living with Disability in New Zealand. Wellington.

Ministry of Justice (2010). Child and Youth Offending Statistics in New Zealand: 1992 to 2008. Wellington.

NZGG (2008). Identification of Common Mental Disorders and Management of Depression in Primary Care: An Evidence-based Best Practice Guideline. Wellington, New Zealand: Guidelines Group.

Rankin, J. & Regan, S. (2004). Meeting Complex Needs: The Future of Social Care. London, UK: Turning Points/Institute of Public Policy Research.

Righthand, S. & Welch, C. (2001). Juveniles who have Sexually Offended: A Review of the Professional Literature. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention.

Rosengard, A., Laing, I., Ridley, J. & Hunter, S. (2007). A Literature Review on Multiple and Complex Needs. Edinburgh, Scotland: Scottish Executive Social Research.

Veneziano, C. & Veneziano, L. (2002). Adolescent Sex Offenders: A Review of Literature. Trauma, Violence & Abuse Journal, 3, 247-260.