Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people


The power of peer relationships in safeguarding: supporting young people to be each other’s greatest cheerleaders



I am writing this blog whilst wearing two professional hats; first as the Organisational Lead for Exploitation at Safer London; an organisation which works alongside young Londoners affected by violence and exploitation, as well as their families, peers, and increasingly the places where they live and spend their time. I am also writing as a recently seconded Youth Work Practice Advisor in the Contextual Safeguarding Team.

For the last 10 years or so I have worked primarily in the voluntary sector, managing services which work alongside young people affected by different forms of extra-familial harm, but before that, I worked as a social worker in child protection teams. So, for me, safeguarding has long been an omnipresent feature in my work. Like many, as soon as I heard Carlene speak about Contextual Safeguarding approaches I knew it would be a game changer for the safeguarding sector; it just makes perfect sense right?! It helps us think about how we can blend many of the existing approaches across the voluntary and statutory sectors, whilst also allowing us to think beyond the capabilities of the current safeguarding system available to us- which ultimately, is not set up to effectively respond to young people affected by extra-familial harm. After many years of frustration at a system that doesn’t work, this feels like an exciting time to be involved in safeguarding young people. Through my two roles I am fortunate enough to have the space and support to think creatively about how we approach safeguarding and at Safer London one of my responsibilities is to oversee our work with Peers.

At Safer London we have always recognised the value of considering the influence of peer relationships in our work; whether this is with individuals or through engaging with peer groups. We know through our work that where young people are exposed to exploitation or violence, when their peers are considered in safeguarding, this is most often in terms of risk and negative influence, even criminalising friendships and looking to place blame or responsibility for harm within the wider peer context. What this often fails to do, is acknowledge the potential strengths and supportive nature of peer relationships.

Given the significance of peer relationships on individuals experiences but also in understanding how they can shape the contexts they are in, it has been important for us to think about how we offer our interventions to promote opportunities to engage with peer relationships and peer groups and this is a key area of our strategy at Safer London over the next 5 years. To support this thinking, we commissioned the Contextual Safeguarding Team to undertake research which explored how we consider and work with peer relationships in our services. It took place between August and December 2019 and we were incredibly lucky to have Katie Latimer, a Research Fellow in the Contextual Safeguarding Team, join us in our team as an embedded researcher; this enabled her to work alongside the practice team to:

- observe how we undertake our work,
look through resources and tools we use
undertake interviews and focus group
join team meetings

    All of this enabled her to gain an in-depth view of how we work and understand the experiences of working with peer relationships based on practice and our work directly with young Londoners.

    The key findings from this research tells us that:

    1.Peer interventions take various forms: safeguarding work with peers can involve group work with connected young people, but this is not always the case.

    2.Peer interventions are most appropriately used alongside other practice that understands and intervenes with the social conditions of abuse, including interventions with other extra-familial contexts.

    3.Peer relationships can be protective and, for this reason, relevant to safeguarding

    4.Practitioners can work with peer relationships without necessarily identifying all the connected young people concerned

      Following this research Katie and I wrote a Briefing; which provides an overview of these findings and how, at Safer London, we are using this research to inform and develop our practice. It also explores what this work means for the CS approach and how it adds detail to how to bring the framework to life by:

      1. Identifying various forms of peer intervention and help researchers to present practitioners with options as they design their interventions (Finding 1).

      2. Locating work with peers alongside work with other extra- and intra- familial contexts (Finding 2).

      3. Highlighting the value and importance of work with peers, whilst simultaneously casting the discussion about young people’s social relationships in a positive light (Finding 3).

      4. Demonstrate that work to understand peer relationships can be completed alongside young people in ways that respects their personal information and consent. Peer mapping is not a tool to increase surveillance of young people. (Finding 4).

      Whilst it helpfully begins to explore how different practices within voluntary sector services can contribute to achieving the four domains of contextual safeguarding; a stand out feature for me is how these approaches centre the values of contextual safeguarding; notably promoting children’s rights, celebrating their strengths and working with hope to promote safety.

      One thing I have taken away from this research is the reminder that young people gain so much from their friendships, and they can play a crucial role in protecting and supporting each other and indeed, being each other’s biggest cheerleaders. I know this isn’t new or particularly innovative; but the reality is, that it’s easily forgotten in our day to day safeguarding; especially when we are working in systems that are so ready to highlight deficits and seek solely to manage risk. So, I come away from this research with a renewed sense of motivation; to seek out opportunities to consider peer relationships, celebrate their protective nature and to be creative in how we approach the inclusion of peer relationships in safeguarding.

      If this is an area you are keen to discuss please feel free to get in touch on either:

      Find out more

      Peer Support Interventions for Safeguarding: A Scoping Review

      Peer Support Interventions for Safeguarding: A Scoping Review


      This literature review presents five forms of peer (support) intervention, along with their key features, potential benefits and considerations for practice. This document summarises the research background to the review, and its methodology, before turning to the findings and conclusions.This review was conducted alongside a study with voluntary sector organisation Safer London, to consider the opportunities to develop safeguarding interventions based on peer support. A briefing summarising these findings can be found here.

      Opportunities for peer safeguarding intervention

      Opportunities for peer safeguarding intervention


      This briefing shares learning from a research project that explored the potential for peer interventions within Safer London, a voluntary sector support service for young Londoners affected by exploitation or violence.This briefing also shares additional detailed examples of work within Safer London as the organisation continues to develop safeguarding interventions that work with the significant social relationships in young people’s lives.

      Posted: 22 Sep 2020

      Author: Gayanthi Hapuarachchi

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