‘Are you up to speed on Contextual Safeguarding?’

‘Cos I know what these boys are like if they don’t get what they want, they’ll beat you up or get girls to beat you up and they’ll switch for no apparent reason…if you say no they consider it as being rude and they don’t like getting talked to like that, and if you’re rude to them then they’ll beat you up and I’ve seen how they beat up people, how everyone’s scared of them.…I said no for something very little I’ve been beaten up and bottled and I realised if I did say no what would happen…I was pressurised and scared, I knew deep down I didn’t want it cos I was still young but I didn’t have a choice.’

(Case 4, account of young woman raped by peers but who was living in a safe home)

Source: Firmin, 2015:122

Last week I delivered my first ever training session on the topic of Contextual Safeguarding (CS). The training was very well received, and I was reminded what a key concept this was in ensuring that our safeguarding is effective.

What is Contextual Safeguarding? CS is:

‘…an approach to understanding, and responding to, young people’s experiences of significant harm beyond their families. It recognises that the different relationships that young people form in their neighbourhoods, schools and online can feature violence and abuse. Parents and carers have little influence over these contexts, and young people’s experiences of extra-familial abuse can undermine parent-child relationships. Therefore, children’s social care practitioners, child protection systems and wider safeguarding partnerships need to engage with individuals and sectors who do have influence over/within extra-familial contexts, and recognise that assessment of, and intervention with, these spaces are a critical part of safeguarding practices. Contextual Safeguarding, therefore, expands the objectives of child protection systems in recognition that young people are vulnerable to abuse beyond their front doors.’

Source: Contextual Safeguarding Network

The focus of CS is older children, who have the freedom to leave the home, or who spend much of their time engaging online. This is important. Broadening our safeguarding focus to include the risks faced specifically by older children has become a key issue for the children’s workforce in recent years. For the first time last year, the NSPCC ‘How safe are our children? 2020’ report revealed the scale of abuse against teenagers, and highlighted their heightened risk of experiencing physical and sexual abuse offences compared to younger children.  The wide-ranging report explains that, compared to younger children, available data from the UK nations shows rates of police-recorded offences against teenagers across the UK are:

  • 4 times as high for physical abuse offences
  • 9 times as high for online grooming offences
  • 6 times as high for sexual abuse offences.

Despite the extent of serious abuse against older children in crime statistics, studies have shown the ability of teenagers to look after themselves is often overestimated and there can be a tendency for professionals to focus on teenager’s behaviour rather than the causes behind it. It’s clear that we need to do more.

The name ‘Contextual Safeguarding’ was first coined by Dr Carlene Firmin in 2011. She initially published an in depth review of nine cases of peer-on-peer abuse in 2011, a study that involved the experiences of about 150 older children in total, including victims, perpetrators, witnesses and other members of peer networks. Firmin realised that traditional safeguarding, which was focussed on individual children and their families, did not fully take into account the impact of their peers and the environment when tackling risk.

Since then, Firmin has been key in ‘rewriting the rules of Child Protection’ so that children are more effectively safeguarded. For a great insight into the passion and analysis of the founder of Contextual Safeguarding, take just 15 minutes to watch Firmin’s inspirational and educational Ted Talk:

The rise of CS as a way of approaching safeguarding in recent years has been nothing short of meteoric. In 2016 Firmin published her CS Framework together with the CS Audit Toolkit; the CS Practitioners’ Network was launched the same year (currently there are 7,000 members). In 2017 the following year, a three year review of practice responses from 11 local authority areas and a CS ‘full system test’ was established in Hackney. In 2018 CS was inserted in the newest edition of statutory safeguarding guidance ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’. The Contextual Safeguarding Implementation Toolkit was launched in 2019 – and currently CS is being practiced in 5 pilot sites, with a further 19 areas beginning implementation plus Scotland; it has been referenced a series of studies in extra familial youth harm and it has been the subject of 16 peer reviewed papers.

The main idea of CS is to acknowledge that as children move from early childhood and into adolescence, they spend increasing amounts of time socialising independently of their families. Older children encounter significant harm in a range of settings beyond their families which include:

  • robbery on public transport;
  • sexual violence in parks;
  • gang related violence on streets;
  • online bullying and harassment;
  • school-based peer abuse; and
  • abuse within their intimate relationships

These risks are termed ‘extra-familial’. An understanding of CS would accept that older children exposed to extra-familial risk may have fractured family relationships as a result of those risks – instead of always regarding fractured family relationships as the source of harm leading to more risky behaviour.

Let’s think about a practical example of how an understanding of CS and extra familial harm could work to better safeguard children. Firmin asks us to consider the case of Dean. She outlines his circumstances:

‘Dean is groomed by a street gang in his neighbourhood to traffic drugs across the country. He is approached by them when hanging-out with his friends at a local take-away food shop. The influence of those who have groomed him means that Dean doesn’t come home when his parents ask him too and stops answering their calls while running drugs. Slowly Dean’s parents lose control of him and when they try to lock him in the house he physically attacks his mother to get out. Dean is one of six peers who have all been approached at the take-away shop for the purposes of drug trafficking…’

In traditional safeguarding, Firmin says, Dean and his parents would probably be the focus in attempts to address his poor behaviour and the harms he is exposed to. Dean’s parents might be sent on a parenting course. Dean himself may be signposted to youth engagement activities. In a CS system, however, extra-familial settings and relationships could be also be the focus of the child protection process, and offer much more rigorous and meaningful intervention that would directly tackle the cause of the harm, and that would not only protect Dean, but also his peers:

‘so the take-away shop, street gang and/or Dean’s peer group may be referred into a safeguarding system, assessed, discussed by a partnership and then to subject to an intervention as a means of keeping Dean safe.’

Source: Firmin: Contextual Safeguarding An overview of the operational, strategic and conceptual framework 2017

CS requires that our safeguarding embrace four key domains – that our focus not just be on the child or the family, but also on peer groups, schools and the wider neighbourhood; that we use existing child protection processes to work with this broader focus; that we are much more imaginative about engaging with potential safeguarding partners; and that we measure our success in terms of safety for all and into the future, not just the subject of a referral in the present.

There are 3 main considerations that CS asks everyone to take on board:

1. our ‘collective capacity’ to safeguard (not just to refer);

2. the importance of creating safe spaces; and

3. that young people’s significant relationships include their peer groups.

For a short (7 minute) insight into CS, watch the Principles of Contextual Safeguarding: https://vimeo.com/269625673

For further reading on Contextualised Safeguarding, see the Contextual Safeguarding Programme Website: history, vision and mission, team, current suite of projects, and key publications https://contextualsafeguarding.org.uk/

Would you like to explore more about Contextual Safeguarding with your colleagues? Contact me at Mandy Parry Training to find out more about my three hour online course on Contextual Safeguarding.