Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people


Going back to roots: the use of Participatory Action Research as a tool for effective multi-disciplinary and multi-agency working with a Contextual Safeguarding approach



The author has a background of delivering contextual safeguarding interventions ‘at place levels’, in diverse communities across the country. He has also a strong background in youth and community work, criminology and community cohesion, approaches that are fused together in this blog. The author currently works in the West Midlands in a local authority and also as a visiting lecturer of criminology at a local university.

Participatory action research[1] (PAR) is now promoted and delivered by many international development agencies and university programs, as well as countless local community organisations around the world.

Alongside other colleagues (and in partnership with young people, parents, carers and residents) I have used PAR methods across the country in four distinct projects which have led to new interventions for each community engaged. Each project has provided me with learning that I have taken into the next piece of work.

Based on these experiences, my professional opinion is that PAR can play a critical role in helping us understand, take action and respond effectively to a whole range of safeguarding issues that take place contextually, in and beyond the home unit; affecting individuals, groups, families and communities.

Through well planned conversation, underpinned by motivational interviewing, PAR gives residents including children, young people, parents, and carers (and local organisations serving the community) the opportunity to work collaboratively in relation to the following:

  • Discussing what’s good about their communities, what the problems are (and critically why they happen).
  • This drives evidence-based solutions which everyone agrees to under a shared vision for change that is owned by all.
  • Residents who want to put back into their communities are invited to be co-producers – they both teach and learn from others. This process builds on both the existing skills and abilities of residents and local organisations, so all develop even more wherewithal to be ‘game changes’ in their communities.
  • PAR approach supports the ‘resilient communities’ model developing in local authorities[2] and can be used as a method to work with children’s services teams at all levels: by preventing exploitation from taking place in the first place, strengthening early help services, providing individuals and groups entrenched in exploitation with pathways out of abuse, and critically identifying perpetrators so the harm they cause is disrupted and prosecuted.
  • PAR promotes a systematic, full-system approach, which aligns agency insight data with the information from the community itself; strengthening our understanding of what needs to change, how, by whom, and how we will know we have succeeded.

PAR can challenge barriers and complexities which prevent a strong understanding of vulnerable communities. For example, by adopting an action research model, feminist criminologists found more domestic violence incidents in 3 streets in Islington then agencies had recorded for the whole London borough[3]. By inviting survivors to be part of the journey to improve, better responses from key agencies to domestic violence were achieved and responses transformed.

My experiences of PAR

In street-based youth work projects I have led, youth workers have used action research to re-engage previously disengaged parents, residents and young people; re-positioning residents as part of the solution in their communities, not the problem. For example, in Goldington in Bedfordshire, following action research in 2007 and a needs and community lead approach, a strategic partnership with University of Luton, George Williams YMCA and Bedfordshire Youth Service was created. This led to an innovative, ‘grow your own’ youth workers scheme that trained local adults and young people to be youth workers; providing them with national accreditation, and building their self-esteem, strengthening community resilience to exploitation in the process. Mums who trained as youth workers organised call ins’ where they held community discussions that halted escalating gang violence, giving services another chance to work[4].

In action research I lead in the West midlands in 2020, the Director of ‘integration strategy’ at the Ministry of Communities Housing Local Government [MCHLG] was invited to observe the rich and honest narratives planned conversations harvested with community residents and local agencies; this secured their buy-in in relation to supporting reset plans including funding from them to support better community facilities and diversionary activities and support for vulnerable families and also improved policy direction.

PAR is concerned with real consultation, partnership, co-production and co-delivery, underpinned by professional, holistic, empowering engagement that inspires and mobilises children and young people, parents’, carers, residents and agencies and services, including business, to work together (instead of against each other) under one agreed direction of travel.

The graphic below illustrates a basic approach to PAR. As the graphic clearly shows, PAR is concerned with bringing about desired changes within a community with problems in a systematic, democratic, enabling and empowering way.


How PAR can support a Contextual Safeguarding approach

  • PAR encourages restorative and meaningful participatory practices: it engages, enables and empowers both residents and services through positive conversation and other holistic ‘bottom up activities’ that are delivered on participants own terms (rather than the terms of practitioner/organisation). For example, positive activities which young people and parents/carers and residents [and groups] choose to engage in, which foster a trusting enabling context where rich conversation and learning can take place.
  • This approach is very different to the rigidity of other social care processes, for example a child protection home visit which is often formal, based on the individual - not group and often not asked for.
  • It encourages ‘really listening’, ‘really hearing’ and finally ‘real observation’ so that a variety of root social causes to exploitation and other safeguarding issues are identified and better understood.
  • The focus is on the art of the possible (whilst being careful to avoid raising unrealistic expectations) and unleashing the potential of communities to do what is necessary for themselves, strengthening safeguarding responses in affected areas in the short medium and long terms.
  • It can provide a reset to cases and projects that have run out of ideas and momentum and provides a catalyst to new, real multi-disciplinary, multi-agency partnership in local communities, cutting across many different strategic priorities with statutory and voluntary services working together under one vision agreed with local communities.
  • It identifies root causes rather than the symptoms; including failures from local/operational/strategic services thus identifying critical learning in relation to improving future service responses and their impact and credibility amongst communities who felt let down previously.
  • ‘Conflict' is seen as an opportunity for real change and quick wins rather than ‘a bury your head in the sand approach’. Holistic engagement opens up opportunities to address grievances and resentment that are barriers to vulnerable families/communities getting the support they require.
  • It slows down, even stops the conveyor belt of new social service referrals by strengthening early help approaches, identifying/disrupting perpetrators who seek to exploit groups of children/young people as well as individuals.
  • For example in Goldington ward in Bedfordshire in 2007, according to Police data, the area went from having the highest to lowest crime rate in the space of 6 months as a result of action research and follow up interventions[5].
  • It starts from a position that despite local threats and real danger in their community, children and young people often have strong connections with their local community, and they want to remain there. This supports a focus on approaches to challenge and move perpetrators out of the community rather than children, also enabling and repairing relationships with young people who have also perpetrated.

Some disadvantages/challenges using PAR approach

  • It requires practitioners to earn people’s trust through sincere professional holistic grass roots work. This may be difficult for some organisations, for example social workers who have had limited experience of this way of working. Communities may be distrustful of services, so barriers go up to services who represent power, particularly social services and the police. This can be overcome by anticipating these issues and taking steps to re-earn trust.
  • Similarly, without a clear agreement and understanding between children services, the council and the police in relation to the vision of interventions, child victims who are also perpetrators can be criminalised. This can compromise hard earned relationships amongst the partnership, but critically with the local community who may feel taken advantage of.
  • It challenges statutory and voluntary services to hold themselves accountable for their practices and reset their plans as necessary so they are in line with the priorities and aspirations of local people. This may be a challenge for some organisations.
  • It requires careful flexibility and community engagement so workers with high caseloads may struggle.
  • Lack of preparation can lead to the work being misunderstood very quickly, whereby communities see action research as a threat, not a resource for change.

None of these challenges and risks outlined are insurmountable. Indeed with proper strategic and operational planning and agreement quality training and supervision, risks can be mitigated shared, accepted and anticipated barriers taken down.



PAR methodology sits well in the above Contextual Safeguarding approach and provides holistic ways of assessing the spectrum of risks within the home environment and outside the home environment including the existence of perpetrators who take advantage of vulnerable people and groups of people.

I have been involved in delivering meaningful PAR for over 15 years across the country. I have been very fortunate to see it done well and the impact this has had in terms of transforming areas marred by gang violence, drugs, poverty and faltering local services. Providing the will is there it can be an incredibly powerful way of meeting the needs of communities, using a multi-agency co-produced approach where everyone shares the responsibility. Living free from exploitation and harm enables families and communities to rebuild their lives. One of the special qualities of PAR is its upfront, ‘cards on the table’ approach, even when people choose not to engage (initially or ever), they rarely voice upset by being afforded meaningful opportunities to have a voice and influence over their environment. There is something powerful in being invited to be part of the solution and not seen as part of the problem and pathologised. In using such an approach, PAR rewards practitioner with real relationships with families and children which are only earned through building trusting relationships which start where are young people, families, and organisations are at, ‘really listening really hearing’ and as Freire would say unlearning and relearning from our cherished communities.

A plan on a page to deliver participatory action research to an area of need.


For further information on this blog please contact Imran Suddle []

Title image credit: "My Life Through A Lens" on Unsplash

[1] From a theoretical standpoint, PAR builds on the critical pedagogy put forward by Paulo Freire as a response to the traditional formal models of education where the "teacher/or professional" stands at the front and "imparts" information to the "students/participants" who are passive recipients.

Participatory action research removes this unequal power relationship instead both teacher/researcher and student/participant swap roles, and ‘teach’ and learn from each other.

[2] For a good clear outline for Resilient communities model see

[3] Middlesex University : Islington Crime survey

[4] This project was observed by Ofsted and described “as expertly delivered seamlessly integrated anti oppressive practice, local issues, and learning... one of the most unique community development projects they had seen”.

[5] Goldington Action Research report findings [2007] Bedfordshire County Council & Pravin Consultancy

Posted: 26 Oct 2020

Author: Lauren Wroe

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