Hi, I’m Mike Botham and I manage a range of services for Sandwell Children’s Trust. In November 2020, as part of the Contextual Safeguarding Local Authority Interest Network, we were fortunate enough to receive a strategic visit from Dr Carlene Firmin. We feel it went well and thought it might be useful to share our experience with other members of the network!
I’d seen Carlene talk in a number of forums and have always been really inspired by the way she speaks so passionately and accessibly about Contextual Safeguarding. I knew there would be real value to our partnerships to interact with Carlene directly and was keen to make the most of the time. Although that said, in May when we were initially offered the visit I have to confess that I was worried that the Covid-19 context might hinder both Carlene’s ability to talk meaningfully with us, and our ability to mobilise around the visit. (I’m pleased to say that neither of those things happened and nor did my worries of two and a half hours of shouting ‘you’re on mute’ to each other occur!)
When we first agreed the meeting, we took a brief report to both our Children’s Trust Executive Management Meeting and to our Safer Sandwell Partnership Police and Crime Board to flag it to partners as something to look forward to and hold the date in diaries. We then started to prepare more meaningfully, aiming to use the visit as a stocktake for reflecting on our journey so far, and to establish key themes we wanted to discuss with Carlene.
We pulled together a working group from as wide a partnership as we could and began to collate, from all our different perspectives, what we have been doing that can be framed within a contextualised safeguarding approach. Sandwell has some really strong partnerships and it became clear as we talked that there was a common desire to think contextually, even if we hadn’t necessarily labelled our activity so far as ‘contextual safeguarding’ per se. (It was really refreshing when we explained this to Carlene that she had no concerns about that; it’s the spirit of making places safer for communities that’s important, not what we call it!)
We collated a document based on the discussions we’d had and the process of doing that was incredibly useful in itself. It took some effort, but it helped to bring us to understand each other’s work and see where things complement each other. It also acted as a way of identifying where we might want to focus our conversation with Carlene as we knew we didn’t want to use the visit as a ‘show and tell’ by us. By sending all this work around the partnership before the visit it gave everyone a chance to think about their areas and to come to the session prepared to highlight strengths but also to explore things we wanted to know more about. We kept in touch with Carlene and her team to confirm timings – there is an outline agenda set out by Carlene but it is really responsive to local need.
The day of the visit itself arrived and after a slight panic where I realised I’d sent a Skype link instead of a Teams one, I’m pleased to say there were no further tech problems. A virtual visit inevitably perhaps requires a bit more discipline in people putting their ‘virtual hand up’ and tracking the comments etc. but it flowed really well and there was plenty of time to go into depth on the themes we’d identified. It also helped avoid some potential pitfalls that we were considering – for example, overstating the need for developing training and perhaps being too grand in our initial ambitions. Carlene’s message of ‘start small but start somewhere’ resonated with us. Overall I’m confident that we made the most of Carlene’s brain in the time we had!
I’d genuinely recommend the site visit to anyone who is offered one, the time with Carlene is invaluable. Since the visit we’ve pulled together our champions group and aim to identify a couple of areas in which we can translate the theory to practice. Our local governance sits with the Child Exploitation Board and we have a standing agenda item to keep the partnership engaged in the discussions. I write this piece at the beginning of the third lockdown and obviously it is a challenging time for implementation – but Carlene’s voice echoes on – starting small but starting somewhere definitely makes sense.