Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people


Using Contextual Safeguarding to design risk assessments with young people



I am Deanna Neilson, Head of Safeguarding at Action for Children, and my work covers the four nations of the UK. I became interested in Contextual Safeguarding as a form of practice that could assist our staff and the young people we work with to better understand and deal with risk. Previously we have used a ’16 plus risk assessment tool’ to work with older young people, and some of our teams have wanted this to be modernised and made more dynamic so that young people feel included in how they can deal with risks, are less the ‘subject’ of the assessment and less blamed, and so that we can address systems to disrupt and prevent risk.

 Our Employability team in Scotland works with young people aged 14 to 24 to help them get into employment or training. The young people bring a wide range of issues with them ranging from abuse and neglect in the family, to substance misuse, mental health and peer group problems. Young people have often not had positive experiences of education and have experienced bullying and violence at school. In the Scottish context, young people aged 16 plus are considered self-determining adults and are not automatically subject to child protection procedures. I think that in light if this, contextual safeguarding has the potential to make life safer for young people in Scotland by addressing risks in the contexts in which they live. The team have been keen to work on an updated 16 plus risk assessment and I was therefore invited to come to talk about Contextual Safeguarding in November 2017. In this session, we discussed the approach and watched some of the helpful videos on the site. The team was very passionate about a model that was not a tick box exercise in risk assessment, but held the possibility of change in the environments where young people often encounter risk and harm. The team had seen young people who felt quite divorced from the whole process and blamed for how their behaviour and attitude caused harm. We felt a real sense of wanting to restore young people’s sense of self-esteem and get them away from thinking that they were the problem. We concluded with the thought that, if young people could also become change agents with us in those harmful contexts, that could be empowering for them. A significant example given was around standing up to bullying and harassment in schools. We decided that we wanted to involve young people to see what they thought about the model of Contextual Safeguarding, and a further session was planned to take place in March 2018.

In March I returned to Glasgow and we met again as a group of colleagues to think about where we were at with the approach. We were joined by some additional colleagues who worked with young people in a residential environment who had complex needs and risks. We would have two young people joining us later that day, and we spent some time thinking about how we would best engage them and obtain their consent. I took the staff group through the Contextual Assessment Framework Template as an additional tool to the resources shared last time we met. We thought that the young people may wish to input into the template as to how they would like this to look. We decided that it would work best to engage the young people in a smaller discussion session with the staff they knew best, to ask them some key questions around feeling and being safe, what would help and how they would like to be engaged.

Young people fed back to the group with some valuable insights about contextual safeguarding and about the risk assessment process. 

What young people said about Contextual Safeguarding:

 ‘family stuff is of crucial importance’

 ‘it is good to know what is happening in one place and in other places’

 ‘what happens at home does go into the school’ 

When dealing with harm at school, ‘both the young person (who is harming others) and the school should change’

 What young people said about the risk assessment process:

 ‘I am happy to have the conversation (about risks) but I don’t like it written down’

 ‘when something is written down it can be misunderstood’

 ‘when a worker writes something down about you they must also know you well…they should get to know you through talking first.’

 In regards to the risk assessment process, a young person suggested that the worker not write verbatim what the young person has said but instead what the worker learned from it. this was suggested as a way to make young people feel more comfortable that a form was being filled in about them.

 Colleagues felt strongly that we needed to ensure that ‘social media’ was included on the form as a context for potential harm, and that we needed to take care with how we described ‘vulnerability factors’ as young people might find this stigmatising. It was also strongly felt by both young people and workers that the risk assessment tool could be improved upon by adding a column that records the progress made.

 The above feedback and insights will assist us in Action for Children in redesigning our risk assessment process and template to ensure that it is dynamic, owned by the young person and the worker, and allows the whole professional network to contribute to safeguarding. Personal reflections for me around contextual methods were around the enduring importance of the family setting for young people, and the importance of risk assessment not being a bureaucratic process, with talking and listening to the young person being crucial. This can be a challenge for services where the remit is to work with young people for a limited time. We need to write records that don’t increase young people’s anxiety about engaging with professionals for fear that they will be misconstrued, especially if they are giving information about peers and institutions they have engaged with.

This blog was written by Deanna Neilson, Head of Safeguarding at Action for Children

Posted: 18 Apr 2018

University of Bedfordshire logo