Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people

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Contextual Safeguarding and Policing: green shoots from the first considerations national policing conference on exploitation

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This blog was written by Dr. Carlene Firmin, Head of the Contextual Safeguarding Programme.


In September 2019 I took Contextual Safeguarding to a policing audience. I travelled to Birmingham early that morning, before hot-footing it back to London to pick my son up from nursery and in that four hour morning slot I learnt two things. Firstly, there are many green shoots when it comes to policing and Contextual Safeguarding. Secondly, we have much work to do to nurture those green shoots and grow a framework through which a policing agenda can consistently contribute to local Contextual Safeguarding efforts.

My speech was one of four delivered that morning – and each one featured context. The first, focused on the demand caused by, and developing responses to, primarily online forms of child sexual abuse which was illuminating. The presenter regularly considered how the online context itself facilitated abuse – and how harmful norms could percolate on web-based platforms in ways that accelerated harm. Calls were made for industry leaders to take greater steps, particularly on the open web, to disrupt attempts to upload abusive content: making the environment as hostile to abuse as possible. The ease with which online abuse could take place presently did not send a strong enough societal message that it would not be tolerated.

The second speech focused on the use of modern slavery legislation, and the need to do more to disrupt organised crime networks who are exploiting adults and children via labour, drugs and sexual abuse. Once again context loomed large. From the community organisations who provided points of access and safety for individuals who were being exploited: through to the challenge to large companies who unknowingly purchased products that featured exploitation in their supply chain. I was alerted to the work of ‘Waves’ state that the breakeven cost, including VAT, for an outside car wash was £6.88 – anything less might suggest labour exploitation. We all have a role to play in looking out for the signs of exploitation – and importantly not facilitating it through where we put our pounds.

And while the third speaker who took to the stage was primarily concerned with understanding adverse childhood experiences, she also gave much thought to the contexts in which: individual adversity occurs; the impact of adversity can be mitigated, and; communities experienced adversity. Framing adversity and its impact in this way was so important – especially given the concerns about approaches which ‘count’ or ‘score’ someone’s adverse childhood experiences in ways that individualise social harm. Instead the speaker recognise that friendships, school environments and other contextual factors can mitigate the impact of previous adversities. They also noted that structural and population factors – such as poverty, racism and sexism – can create adverse community experiences.

So by the time I stepped onto the platform there was much for me to build upon. The impact of contexts on the nature of abuse, the likelihood of abuse, and the routes to disrupt abuse had been woven through the speeches that came before mine. It was my job to demonstrate how a Contextual Safeguarding approach provides a framework to engage with these issues both operationally and strategically. I also needed to identify how a policing agenda could contribute to this work. From neighbourhood and transport policing, through to analysts and first responders, a range of policing functions come into play when creating safe contexts for young people. I also pointed to a number of challenges we face. Crime data doesn’t always reflect the localities where young people have felt unsafe in test sites – we need broader routes to safety and problem profiling. There isn’t a single part of the police service that oversees the different forms of extra-familial harm we are concerned with or who would play a role in leveraging a response: who then attends the meeting or ensures engagement in a plan to increase safety in a public place where young people are being groomed into exploitation? And how to we address situations where poor relationships between statutory agencies, including the police, and communities, including young people, can create or sustain unsafe contexts. If young people don’t believe we can keep them safe when they travel to school – or that they will be policed as the problem rather than safeguard as a community resource – we create fault lines from which exploitation can grow.

So as I travelled home I felt heartened that the conversation was underway – and had reached such a large number of policing leads. But I was also acutely aware of the whole myriad of activities that will need to take place to bring the ambition I shared to life. As we continue to test Contextual Safeguarding in local areas, we will build case examples of the role that policing colleagues have played in delivering welfare driven assessments of, and interventions with, places to increase safety and guardianship with them. And as we do, we hope more policing colleagues will join the Contextual Safeguarding network and our shared ambition of creating contexts that are hostile to abuse and protect young people – rather that contexts that are hostile to young people and thereby enable abuse.

If you work in the police and are a member of the Contextual Safeguarding network we’d love to hear how you are exploring the approach in your service. Please get in touch!

Posted: 18 Oct 2019

Author: Destiny

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