Research type 
Desk research
Year of report 

Summary of findings

  • There is no agreed definition of which groups comprise vulnerable young people (VYPs). However, there is increasing consensus that the term ‘VYPs’ suggests six core groups:
  1. Young offenders 
  2. School excludes/truants
  3. Young homeless 
  4. Looked-after children
  5. Young people exploited through sex work
  6. Children of problem drug users
  • Definitions, “attributes” and patterns of drug use for each of these core groups are considered in detail in the report.
  • Theoretically, young people are classified as vulnerable if they present high risks of using drugs or of developing problematic patterns of use. Again, there is no agreed definition of ‘risk factors’; however among the most significant risk factors identified in the majority of studies are: a lack of close parenting, poor school attendance, and living in a deprived area. Risk factors seldom apply individually to raise a young person’s likelihood of drug use; instead they are usually experienced in combination.
  • Depending on the definitions used, roughly a fifth of young people under 18 fall into a VYP group. However, around a quarter of those who feature in one VYP group simultaneously feature in another. Research also shows numerous pathways that vulnerable young people follow which lead them from one VYP group to another.
  • Levels of drug use among VYP groups are consistently reported as higher than those among other young people. All VYP groups report high levels of familiarity with drugs, and high claimed levels of drug knowledge. Cannabis is so ubiquitous as scarcely to be regarded as a drug at all.
  • The provision of drug treatment has been described as “complex and highly variable”. The report outlines different levels of specialist and non-specialist drug treatment.
  • The evidence suggests that few young people require the most specialist forms of drug treatment (although many of those who do will also appear in VYP groups). It is also best practice that young people should be treated in the lowest tier appropriate to their needs - ie. that they should be kept out of specialist treatment if possible.
  • Whilst there is some discussion of the effectiveness of drug treatment and prevention programmes, there is very little research evidence available to show what provision is effective – most evaluations have been process rather than outcome/impact evaluations.
  • Awareness of FRANK is reported to be “almost universal” among most groups of VYPs. By contrast, it appears that young people’s awareness of local drug support services is very limited.
  • While it is hard to identify users of FRANK according to their VYP profile, research suggests that very few VYPs ever contact FRANK. The mismatch between blanket awareness of FRANK and non-use of FRANK can be explained by VYPs’ not seeing FRANK’s information-based services as relevant to their needs. What VYPs need, according to research, is holistic support with their multiple problems, delivered face to face by local, trusted service providers.
  • There are clear limits to the extent to which FRANK can currently deliver messages to VYPs in its mass-market communications.


  • There is an opportunity for FRANK to increase its relevance to VYPs by extending the current referral facility on the FRANK helpline, in order to provide vulnerable young people with greater access to local support services. At the same time FRANK should define more precisely its target audience of vulnerable young people, both at the level of VYP groups and subgroups.
  • Issues around developing more appropriate, robust, referral systems with better information about local support systems together with developing targeted approaches to specific sub-groups of VYP are discussed in detail.

Research objectives


The key focus of the study was to address the question: “Can FRANK make a greater contribution towards increasing the take up of treatment services among vulnerable young people?”

Five specific objectives were identified for the study:

  • Provide a profile of young people (under 18) in each of the 6 Vulnerable Young People (VYP) groups (including demographics, drugs behaviour, effective communications routes and channels, and key influencers)
  • Describe the drug treatment services landscape (including audience groups, types of services / definitions, rates of participation among all young people and VYP groups, usual routes into treatment for participating young people, perceptions and attitudes of service providers)
  • Identify Barriers to Participating in Treatment Services (for young people in general and for specific VYP groups; including external and internal barriers - eg. image of treatment)
  • Understand the use of, and attitudes to, FRANK (by specific VYP groups, their parents, and among stakeholders who deal with VYPs)
  • Explore the options for driving VYP engagement with treatment services (including evidence of 'what works' in engaging VYPs (drug-related and other) including mentoring, and the possible role of FRANK)



FRANK is an inter-departmental communications campaign which aims to prevent young people from becoming problem drug users, and to provide effective harm reduction support to young drug users. FRANK has been designed to contribute to the delivery of the Government’s key Public Service Agreements (PSAs) in relation to drugs, which include reducing the harm caused by illegal drugs, increasing the number of problem drug users in treatment programmes, and reducing levels of frequent use of drugs (and any use of Class A drugs) among young people under 25 – especially among those defined as Vulnerable Young People (VYPs). This desk research was commissioned to provide data and information to help improve uptake of drug services amongst Vulnerable Young People (VYP). The report constitutes the first of two reports; the second is entitled “Understanding Young People’s Drug Use”

Research participants


The report explores research carried out on Vulnerable Young People. The report developed an analysis, which begins to segment VYP and may be useful in future work. It proposes that VYP can be divided into:

  • young offenders
  • school excludees/truants
  • young homeless; looked-after children
  • young people exploited through sex work
  • children of problem drug users

Young people who fall into the category of VYP often fall into a number of the above groups.

Audience Summary





General Population



Most studies considered children between 10-17 years, (depending on age at which risk behaviours are displayed). A few studies went up to 24 yrs.

Social Class


No specified


Other Research type

Reports included quantitative, qualitative studies as well as policy and strategy documents, service evaluations and literature reviews.

Data collection methodology

Textual/documentary analysis

Other data collection methodology


This review included:

  • Textual/documentary analysis
  • Data gathering
  • Scoping
  • Reporting
  • Consultation with key stakeholders

Sample size

  • The research process involved contacting stakeholders from 40 organisations and government departments
  • 40 documents were included in the scooping analysis followed by five additional documents after the reporting session.

Groups considered in this piece of research were:

  • young offenders
  • school excludees/truants
  • young homeless; looked-after children
  • young people exploited through sex work
  • children of problem drug users

It should be noted that children who fall into category of VYP often fall into a number of the above groups.

Detailed region


National and regional research included in the desk research

Fieldwork dates


The study was undertaken over an eight week period, from March to May 2007

Agree to publish





This report is classified as sensitive as it deals with vulnerable young people.

Research agency

Individual consultant: Andrew Darnton

COI Number