This blog was written by Dr Clive Diaz (Research Associate) and Nat Wilson (Researcher) at Cardiff University.
Historically, child protection interventions are focused on ensuring children are safe in their homes. In particular, child and family social workers assess the parent’s capacity to meet the child’s needs and keep them safe. If a child is at risk, social workers will work with the family to promote understanding of the risks the child faces and encourage changes that will safeguard the child and keep the family together. But Dr Carlene Firmin, Head of the Contextual Safeguarding programme at the University of Bedfordshire, has argued that the traditional child protection system is not effective at safeguarding children from risks outside of the family and is predominantly focused on assessing and intervening with young people who are at risk from their parents and carers.
However, children are not only at risk when they are at home with their families. As recent high-profile child sexual exploitation cases have demonstrated, children can be at risk wherever they choose to spend their time, including in schools, local fast food outlets, on the bus in or in a stairwell. Therefore, the location and context the child is in is important. The Contextual Safeguarding approach requires the engagement of a far wider range of actors including the fast food worker, the bus driver and the general public who form part of a wider holistic network of people looking out for young people alongside social workers.
But do social workers have the capacity to consider all the environments where a young person spends their time or all the peers a young person may interact with outside of the child’s home? Do they have capacity to carry out assessments and interventions of not just families, but of peer groups and contexts which may increase the prevalence of harm in places such as parks, train stations or even schools? Professionals will have to consider peer group dynamics and the level of influence between individuals as well as the relationship between young people and certain environments where the harm is occurring, and to consider potential interventions which could disrupt this harm. This is a very different way of working for child and family social workers.
Looking at the whole picture
The Contextual Safeguarding approach was initially introduced in Hackney. Our research was carried out in a different Local Authority in London, which has been embedding a Contextual Safeguarding approach into their practice over the last 18 months through piloting a Contextual Safeguarding pod, as part of their adolescent service. In order to explore professional perceptions of the challenges and opportunities of working in this way, we carried out interviews and focus groups with 24 social workers, team managers and senior managers in both the specialist Contextual Safeguarding team and a locality child protection team. Ours is the first independent research into the Contextual Safeguarding approach.
Several professionals in our interviews and focus groups described how risks such as physical violence and sexual assault escalated when certain young people interacted as a peer group and highlighted that risks further increased when peer groups met in a certain environment or context. As noted by a senior manager from the London local authority when discussing traditional child protection practice, practitioners often structure their work around meeting deadlines, and practitioners have become comfortable with assessing parental capacity quickly:
“I can go and bang out an assessment in an hour and a half if I have to, because I know how to do that and that's what I'm used to doing,” commented one senior manager.
In the context of a child protection system with already high caseloads and overwhelming levels of bureaucracy, the Contextual Safeguarding approach requires liaising with multiple agencies. Such time laborious assessments and interventions may be perceived as an additional pressure on the time and resources of an already strained system. The frontline workers in the Contextual Safeguarding team told us that assessing environments under a Contextual Safeguarding approach is very different to the parental capacity led assessments typical in traditional child protection practice. Senior managers we spoke to recognised there would need to be clear frameworks outlining how practitioners should seek to assess environments outside of the home:
“I think if you just turned up to a social worker and said, we’re really concerned about this shop, you have to do something about it, that would be overwhelming, like if I was a social worker, like, what the hell do you want me to do?,” commented one senior manager.
In order to support practitioners to adjust to this markedly different way of working, the Contextual Safeguarding programme at the University of Bedfordshire have developed guidance and tools to support practitioners to better identify, assess and intervene in contexts outside of the family. Guidance such as the neighborhood assessment framework, developed by Firmin, Nyarko and Lloyd (2018) can potentially support practitioners to better examine how the interplay between a peer group and a certain environment may promote harmful social norms. The tool supports practitioners to explore the vulnerability factors, risk factors, resilience factors and help identify individuals with capacity to safeguard associated within a peer group, their neighborhood and their school. Additionally, Sloane et al. (2019) provide guidance to support multi-agency professionals and stakeholders to work together in order to assess and map-out peer groups. This involves considering the relationships between individuals, the relationship between a peer group and the context in which the harm takes place and to consider interventions which could effectively disrupt this harm. When this research was carried out, the Local Authority where we carried out this research had not yet embedded these tools into practice.
Implementing a Contextual Safeguarding approach to safeguarding children will require educating relevant partners in the community of their potentially crucial roles in safeguarding young people. Researchers have recommended that children’s services must develop good working relationships with the community agents that have influence over the spaces young people spend their time. A positive consequence of this is that several participants in the focus group we spoke to indicated that closer communication between different agencies was bringing professionals together.
“Now, the shift is, we're seeing this as a community issue. We're really utilizing the kind of, you know, The Children Act, it's everyone's responsibility. So, we tap into the local mosques, local churches, local hotspots, places like (Fast-food chain),” commented one Local Authority team manager.
The local authority had carried out safeguarding training with partners in the community and were confident that this would have a positive impact for young people. As noted by one senior manager, “We’ve done bespoke trainings to a housing association ... the firefighters, (railway) station, we're engaging with different kinds of partners. And the general response that we get is: why haven't we done this sooner?”.
Collaborating with these new partners does mark a significant shift from traditional safeguarding practices. Managers and senior managers across the London borough provided insights into how they reached out to develop relationships with these community agents. This is highlighted by the account of one senior manager:
“We had a series of incidents last summer, where police were called for large gatherings of young people outside (Fast-food chain) that were ending, in kind of, violent assaults and things like that. And so, then we were engaging with business owners to say, ‘how can we do this differently? You don't want us on your doorstep?’ So, you're engaging with business owners in a way that perhaps social services hasn't done in the past.”
As a result, senior managers reported that they were starting to build positive working relationships with new partners in the local community – for example, with local train stations and fast food shops. The senior managers we spoke to felt it was important to educate local partners of the risk of exploitation that young people faced, as these community partners typically had not considered the prevalence of these risks or their scope to influence this.
Partnership working is recognised by the Contextual Safeguarding framework to be one of four key domains of Contextual Safeguarding, therefore it is important to consider the process of seeking community buy in (Firmin 2017; Peace 2018). Ultimately, Contextual Safeguarding brings social workers closer to the communities they work with in a collaborative manner, something that can only help in communities where social workers are sometimes regarded as unnecessarily interfering or disruptive. A key challenge remaining is equipping them with the training and resources to do it.
As highlighted above, there are a number of tools to support practitioners to better identify, assess and intervene within the contexts of extra familial harm. However, a challenge to the implementation of a Contextual Safeguarding approach that emerged from the data was that social workers may feel already too overwhelmed by the demands of practice to absorb new information and embody this new way of practicing. More positively, several opportunities for effective practice also emerged from the data with promising examples of partnership working in practice. We recommend that safeguarding partners should be enthusiastic and proactive in developing new collaborative partnerships within their local communities to better safeguard young people. It is also essential that Local Authorities are properly funded so that social workers have the capacity to work meaningfully with children at risk of extra familial harm. Furthermore, it is also very important that social workers receive training in how to work with young people at risk of extra familial harm so that their confidence and competence in engaging with contexts and locations improves.