Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people

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Reflections on the Youth Violence Commission Final Report through the lens of Contextual Safeguarding

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The Cross-Party Youth Violence Commission Final Report and the #FinalWord event

Far too many of the institutions, services and opportunities which should help to protect young people from harm are either limited in good practice, have limited availability, have limited resources, or all three. The Youth Violence Commission Final Report presents a clear vision of the factors which can keep young people safe, build their agency, and support their self-worth. In particular, the report highlights the importance of nurturing conditions in the early years; supportive, inclusive education; high quality youth services; work opportunities with decent pay and conditions; and secure and adequate housing. These should all be viewed as basic, foundational features of life for our young people, but far too many go without one or more of these necessities, with devastating consequences. On top of this, our criminal justice system is all too often ineffective and inefficient, seemingly guided more by punitive ideology than by the evidence on what works for preventing crime and reducing harm in our society. We have a long way to go if we’re to be better at keeping our young people safe.

The report lays out 41 recommendations which could radically improve the lives of our young people, deliver all of these foundational necessities to them, and significantly increase the effectiveness of our criminal justice system. It also presents a compelling economic case: enacting all of these measures would be cheaper than the continued cost of violence.

We launched the report online in a highly innovative way, handing over the event to a team of expert young people who presented their reflections on the report, and their vision for the changes we need to see if violence is to be reduced. I continue to support the young people in their work advocating for these changes, and many of them are involved with fantastic community research and campaigning organisations such as Take Back the Power, Hackney Account, Just4Kids Law, No More Exclusions and the 4front Project. As anyone who works with young people will know, they have a tendency to see through crap, tell it like it is, and fearlessly present the changes that they know will lead to positive social progress. These young people were no exception, and though some might view their recommendations as “radical”, they are all grounded in evidence, carefully formulated, and – again – their enactment would be more cost-effective than both the continued cost of violence and the continued cost of our inefficient, ineffective, punitive criminal justice system.

Contextual Safeguarding and the Youth Violence Commission Final Report

Below are a few short reflections on contextual safeguarding in light of both the Final Report and my experiences working with young people in Hackney (North East London). Rather than go into depth on one topic, I just offer a few reflections on three different specific issues, to hopefully prompt some further discussion. I’d welcome any comments or critique from others engaged with contextual safeguarding in theory or practice.

Contextual safeguarding and schools

Schools should provide both high quality education and exemplary care. Schools should be specialists in both teaching their students and keeping them safe from harm – both within and beyond the school gates.

To do this requires resource, as the Final Report makes clear: schools need adequate funding to provide inclusive education, which enables our young people to both achieve brilliant academic results and to develop personally within a safe, nurturing environment.

It also requires sufficient recognition, training, status and reward for those staff members whose expertise most closely relates to young people’s wellbeing: early years staff, support staff, SEND staff, safeguarding leads, mental health leads, and so on. Given the enormous overrepresentation of people with speech and language difficulties in our criminal justice system, speech and language practitioners should also be viewed as vitally important specialists protecting young people from harm. These are experts in sustainably reducing the frustration and anger felt by those who struggle to communicate – by enabling young people to express themselves, they save lives. All of these roles are too often seen as supplementary or subsidiary, as compared to those more directly involved with teaching and learning. This is an enormous mistake, if we wish to see our schools protect our children from harm as effectively as they support their education.

In my own professional practice, I frequently observe another enormous mistake made by too many schools: the adoption of cold, punitive approaches to discipline which undermine their capacity to safeguard children. This is far from the case in all schools, of course – many adopt fundamentally different approaches, such as ‘unconditional positive regard’ – but where punitive ‘zero tolerance’ discipline policies are adopted, they can exacerbate the vulnerability to harm of our young people, as well as, in some cases, directly harming their wellbeing. The nature and extent of this problem in London schools has been highlighted in numerous research reports. Community research that I co-led with two local young people in Hackney found that a large number of students felt that they couldn’t or wouldn’t speak to a school staff member if they were really worried about something. In their research in Camden, Take Back the Power found that schools seem to disproportionately punish those students ‘who are valued less’ (Lunghy et al 2019: p. 21); and in an ethnography of one London school, anthropologist Christy Kulz found that some students experienced the school as an ‘increasingly antagonistic landscape where [they] lacked value’ (Kulz 2017: 130). Internal exclusion practices such as “isolation booths” led young people in Barker et al’s (2010) study to compare their school to a prison.

Punitive schools frustrate and anger students, causing many to emotionally divest from schooling, or (at work) from any authority, agency, or service, leaving them far more vulnerable to harm. Other professionals, such as youth workers, social workers, and Youth Offending Team workers, can struggle to build trust with young people whose school experience has fundamentally alienated them from all professionals and services. Even more concerningly, some punitive practice directly puts young people in danger: I know of cases in which schools have sent students home – without checking if a parent was home or if the student had keys – for wearing the wrong socks.

Two of the Charter School chains in the US which popularised rigid disciplinary regimes, KIPPand Uncommon Schools, have both recently released statements – in light of the Black Lives Matter movement – to say that they’re changing their whole approach to discipline. I hope that many British schools will follow their lead.

Schools also too often fail to effectively engage with local grassroots organisations, which are frequently best-placed to safeguard children and young people in the places outside of both home and school. Youth workers can build deep, trusting relationships, which can be absolutely vital for understanding the protective and risk factors in a young person’s life, across all the social contexts they dwell in. Mohamed Abdallah, former safeguarding lead at Dunraven School, made the point brilliantly by describing his work as a ‘collaborative effort with local grassroots organisations’.

Contextual safeguarding and the police

During the pandemic crisis, I’ve noticed a substantial increase in young people I work with being stopped and searched or arrested without sufficient justification. If we want to truly realise the ideal that our young people should be safe from harm wherever they are, we have to reckon with the fact that, for some young people – disproportionately black young people and young people from poorer backgrounds – the police can represent more of a risk than a protection. This also exacerbates the problem of grooming: if young people have no faith in official sources of safety and authority – due to their and their community’s experiences of them – they’re more vulnerable to exploiters who are expert in presenting themselves as more effective, more relatable sources of safety and authority.

The young experts at the #FinalWord event presented excellent ideas for increased police accountability, and the Final Report calls for increased investment in neighbourhood policing – the kind of policing proven to have greatest legitimacy in communities. Both of these measures would significantly enhance the safety of our young people.

Contextual safeguarding and employment

Grooming by adults or by peers is of course one of the most significant extra-familial dangers to our young people. One factor that can substantially protect our young people from exploitation and harm is secure, decent, fulfilling work. The Report calls for much more to be done to enable this. Employment can provide income, meaning, self-worth, dignity, and a positive sense of the future. Or, if it’s poorly paid, exploitative and precarious, it can exacerbate risk. As Elliott Currie has shown, what he calls “marginal work” can be a significant cause of violence: economies which have more marginal work have more violence.

Too many young people I work with are faced with a legitimate economy which can seem just as grim and exploitative as illegal routes to income. For some, “gig economy” work with poverty pay has precious little to recommend it over drug-running. We have an exploitative legal job market and a prosperous illegal drugs market: a dangerous, toxic combination. If they are to be kept safe, we need both better employment opportunities for young people and radically reformed drugs policies, which should focus on harm reduction.

The Youth Violence Commission Final Report presents many more points of interest for contextual safeguarding practitioners and researchers. I’d welcome comments, thoughts and reflections about this blog or about the report itself, and can be reached at lbillingham91@gmail.com or on twitter - @lbilli91.

Posted: 28 Aug 2020

Author: Gayanthi Hapuarachchi

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