New approach to safeguarding goes to places where young people are at risk

Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2018No comments

Every community wants to find effective ways to protect children and young people from the risks that they face when they are not at home.  Shopping centres and parks, takeaways and street corners, the school playground and the classroom: these are the places where young people are spending time with their peers. These spaces are also outside the control of their families. 

Young people are influenced by their networks and surroundings. On the fringes of gang cultures in London boroughs, they are vulnerable to being recruited into anti-social behaviour and criminality. 

The child protection system typically pays attention to the relationships between family members. Traditional approaches to safeguarding can limit how far social workers and partners from other agencies can safeguard young people who experience abuse or exploitation outside of the family. Standard assessments and interventions were designed to focus on individual children and their families, and not on the places where the risk happens. 

Where do young people go?

Recent research by Sian Berry shows that a third of London’s youth centres have shut since 2011. Local authorities have had to cut their youth service programmes and where activities are still available, youth workers struggle to find facilities to hold events.

As a consequence, many children and young people are vulnerable to abuse, of engaging in anti-social behaviour and of feeling the pressure from peers and social networks to get involved in high risk activities. 

When there is less for older teenagers to do, they can too easily become involved in gangs and other criminal activities. 

The definitions here become blurry: young people who commit crimes or become anti-social are often victims of older teenagers and adults. Many of these have experienced some form of violence or abuse in their own lives.  Professionals are beginning to recognise that terms like ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ cannot be easily applied for young people who suffer trauma due to previous experiences. These young people are often much more vulnerable to criminal exploitation, and later find that culture difficult to escape from. 


What is Contextual safeguarding?

To address these problems, Dr Carlene Firmin, of The University of Bedfordshire, has developed an approach known as ‘contextual safeguarding’ to inform policy and practice approaches to safeguarding adolescents. In September of this year, the phrase appeared in the government guidance, Working Together to Safeguarding Children.  

Contextual safeguarding involves looking at how peer groups, neighbourhoods, schools, and social media affect young people's vulnerability. This new way of thinking helps focus on the fact that young people experience harm beyond their families and recognises that the different relationships that young people form outside of home feature violence and abuse. Parents and carers may have little influence over these contexts, and young people’s experiences of abuse and exploitation can undermine parent-child relationships.

Dr Firmin’s approach helps professionals to explore how we can reduce the need to move children away from unsafe social environments and instead, create safety in the places and communities in which they spend their time. 

London local authorities like Hackney, Waltham Forest and Havering are leading the way in applying this approach in their work to safeguard young people from abuse and exploitation. This means establishing new forms of partnership working including with organisations like transport providers, local businesses, fast food restaurants and other places where young people gather. 

What can local authority children’s services teams and partners do?

  • Children’s services teams – working closely with Police, schools, health and other partners - are engaging with people and networks who do have influence over young people within contexts outside of the family and home. 
  • Assessment and intervention within these spaces are a critical part of safeguarding practices. Contextual Safeguarding expands the scope of child protection and youth justice systems in recognition that young people are vulnerable to abuse in a range of social contexts.
  • Professionals can work to recognise that adolescent development is distinct from both early childhood and from adulthood, and that understanding young people’s lives, social networks and the spaces where they spend time – including online - is vital.
  • Trauma-informed thinking will help professionals to recognise constrained choices – where young people do not feel able to make safe and healthy decisions. This will help to avoid language of stigma and blame and to recognise that terms like ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ may not always be useful to describe young people involved in criminal exploitation. 
  • There are useful introductions to the approach on the contextual safeguarding network 
  • I have recently edited some practice guidance for safeguarding adolescents (to be downloaded) in Waltham Forest.
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