Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people


Contextual Safeguarding and child protection systems beyond the UK



Delphine Peace is a Research Fellow in the Contextual Safeguarding programme and is currently working on the ‘Securing Safety’ and ‘Innovate’ research projects, exploring Contextual Safeguarding approaches in local authorities and the community and voluntary sector.

We know that extra-familial harm affects young people across the world – but less is known internationally about how different child protection systems address this. In the UK, 'extra-familial harm' commonly refers to various forms of harm or abuse that young people might experience in their relationships, or in the spaces in which they spend time outside of the home (such as schools or neighbourhoods). Some of us in the Contextual Safeguarding team have started to explore responses to adolescent extra-familial harm in other countries. We are interested in whether Contextual Safeguarding might resonate in other countries as a framework and offer novel approaches to practice. To situate the findings of the ‘Securing Safety’ project internationally, I recently conducted an international scoping review on the use of out-of-home care and secure facilities to protect adolescents from child exploitation and trafficking – findings of which will be shared in a briefing over the summer. To allow for meaningful comparison with the UK, I looked at high-middle income countries with modern child protection systems. My initial reading highlighted a number of common trends about how child abuse is framed and responded to in these countries that clearly speak to Contextual Safeguarding. I outline them in this blog.

Child protection systems and extra-familial harm

The first striking trend is that child protection systems everywhere generally struggle to address extra-familial harm. Despite developments in international policy frameworks and guidance aimed at improving preventative approaches and child protection responses to child sexual and criminal exploitation, many studies indicate that child protection systems across the world provide inadequate responses to these forms of harm (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2020; Pullmann et al., 2020; Palmer, 2019; OSCE Office of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, 2019; Radford et al., 2017). In many places, young people at risk of, or who have experienced exploitation, are either criminalised or fall through the gaps of child protection services. Moreover, the (limited) child welfare support available is often ill-suited to the complex needs of adolescents who have experienced exploitation. A similar pattern emerges for child protection systems’ failure to care for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) across Europe and to recognise their enhanced vulnerability to (and sometimes experiences of) extra-familial harm (Gimeno-Monterde and Gutierrez-Sanchez, 2019; Horgan and Ni Raghallaigh, 2017).

Abuse framed through the lens of the family
Comparisons of child welfare systems across Northern America, Australia and Europe show that in many legislative frameworks, like in the UK, abuse is defined and addressed in a familial setting – and that state intervention depends on the abuse being attributable to parenting. This is another trend that struck me. Child protection systems in these countries protect children and young people from risks situated within their home/family by removing them from their home environment and/or by creating ‘safety nets’ for their families through social and economic protection arrangements (Gilbert et al., 2011; Spratt et al., 2015; Merkel-Holguin, et al., 2019). Gilbert (1997) identified two broad approaches to addressing child abuse: Anglo-American child welfare services tend to follow a child protection orientation, concentrating resources on families were risk of abuse is deemed high and formulating child safety-plans, whereas northern European systems follow a family-service orientation, prioritising early intervention and family support (Gilbert et al. 2011). In 2011, Gilbert and colleagues revisited and nuanced this study, showing that the two approaches they had initially opposed are increasingly overlapping, as child and family services everywhere are grappling with complex contemporary issues. They also note a new child-focus orientation, centred on children’s individual development needs and wellbeing (Gilbert et al., 2011) and an increased emphasis across child protection systems on risk assessment tools and legalistic and procedural decision-making. While they differ across countries, and at times overlap, these three types of approaches to addressing child abuse locate risk and responses within children and families.

A disconnect between international guidance and practice

The third key trend concerns the disconnect between child protection systems that predominantly frame child abuse through the lens of the family, and international strategic and policy frameworks that increasingly reflect a broader socio-ecological understanding of child abuse. International guidance issued over the last decade highlight the influence of social, economic, and cultural factors on both increasing risk and building safety. These documents advocate for comprehensive, multi-agency, and community-based approaches – see for instance the European Report on Preventing Child Maltreatment (2013) or the World Health Organisation Strategies for Ending Violence Against Children (2018). This recognition of the interlocking influences of family, community, and society factors has led to the development of preventive interventions – known as the ‘public health approach’ – which have expanded the reach of child protection systems in many countries to a wider cohort of young people and their families (Spratt et al., 2015; Parton, 2019).

Understanding the lived experiences of young people
The final trend I want to note here is the shared understanding of child protection as a human rights issue and the shift towards the need to improve our understanding of young people’s lived experiences (Spratt et al., 2015). Yet we know very little about young people’s perceptions and experiences of both harm and safety in the various contexts and relationships in their lives. International comparative research in social work tends to focus on vulnerable young people at a macro-level analysis, but doesn’t often look at the multiple facets of young people’s lives and how these might shape vulnerabilities and risks of abuse (Healy et al., 2014).

Applicability of Contextual Safeguarding
Contextual Safeguarding has been developed and primarily implemented in England and Wales but the issues it confronts are not confined to the UK. In engaging with the social conditions of harm, the Contextual Safeguarding framework and the principles that underpin it align with the ethical framework of the International Federation of Social Workers – and resonate with the trends outlined in this blog. Cultural difference are sometimes seen as barriers to the sharing and translation of practice from one national context to another. However, Spratt et al. (2015) argue, citing Andrew Cooper in evidence given to the Scottish Executive (2002), that shared principles, which are derived from and driven by common ‘imperatives’, are a helpful starting point when comparing child protection systems. In turn, these principles can encourage increased commonality in policies and practice internationally.

We often hear from practitioners in the UK that Contextual Safeguarding gives them a language to frame and address issues they grapple with when working in protection systems that have not been designed to identify and respond to extra-familial harm. Could Contextual Safeguarding provide a shared language, based on shared international principles, driven by the imperative to address extra-familial harm? Could contextual interventions build on preventative and child centred approaches by drawing professionals, young people, families and communities to create safety in spaces where young people experience harm?

The implementation of Contextual Safeguarding approaches in the UK surfaces many challenging questions about the nature, values, and ethics of child protection systems and social work practice, and the thresholds for state interventions in the lives of young people and families (Firmin, 2020). No doubt these questions are present across other child protection systems. In the autumn my colleagues Lauren Wroe, Carlene Firmin and I will embark on a new project that will explore the feasibility and replicability of Contextual Safeguarding in other European countries. Particularly, we will explore the potential value of a Contextual Safeguarding lens when applied to the shared challenges related to the protection of UASC and victims of cross-border trafficking.

If Contextual Safeguarding can provide useful as a lens to understand other child protection systems and contexts of harm, these setting in turn have much learning to offer to further enrich the Contextual Safeguarding framework.

If you would like to share any example of Contextual Safeguarding being used in international contexts, please email


Firmin, C. (2020). Contextual safeguarding and child protection: Rewriting the rules. Routledge.

Gilbert, N. (Ed.). (1997). Combatting child abuse: International perspectives and trends. Oxford University Press.

Gilbert, N., Parton, N., & Skivenes, M. (Eds.). (2011). Child protection systems: International trends and orientations. OUP USA.

Gimeno-Monterde, C., & Gutiérrez-Sánchez, J. D. (2019). Fostering unaccompanied migrating minors. A cross-border comparison. Children and Youth Services Review, 99, 36-42.

Healy, K., Lundström, T., & Sallnäs, M. (2011). A comparison of out-of-home care for children and young people in Australia and Sweden: Worlds apart?. Australian Social Work, 64(4), 416-431.

Horgan, D., & Ní Raghallaigh, M. (2019). The social care needs of unaccompanied minors: the Irish experience. European Journal of Social Work, 22(1), 95-106.

Merkel-Holguin, L. A., Fluke, J., & Krugman, R. D. (2019). National systems of child protection. Springer.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (2019). Report of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings. Available here

Palmer, Emma. "Trafficked children and child protection systems in the European Union." European journal of social work 22.4 (2019): 551-562.

Parton, N. (2019). Changing and competing conceptions of risk and their implications for public health approaches to child protection. In Re-visioning public health approaches for protecting children (pp. 65-78). Springer, Cham.

Pullmann, M. D., Roberts, N., Parker, E. M., Mangiaracina, K. J., Briner, L., Silverman, M., & Becker, J. R. (2020). Residential instability, running away, and juvenile detention characterizes commercially sexually exploited youth involved in Washington State’s child welfare system. Child abuse & neglect, 102, 104423.

Radford, L., Allnock, D. and Hynes, P. (2017). Preventing and Responding to Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation: Evidence review. Unicef. Available here

Sethi, D., Bellis, M., Hughes, K., Gilbert, R., Mitis, F., & Galea, G. (2013). European report on preventing child maltreatment. World Health Organization. Regional Office for Europe.

Spratt, T., Nett, J., Bromfield, L., Hietamäki, J., Kindler, H., & Ponnert, L. (2015). Child protection in Europe: Development of an international cross-comparison model to inform national policies and practices. The British Journal of Social Work, 45(5), 1508-1525.

WHO (2018) INSPIRE Handbook: action for implementing the seven strategies for ending violence against children. Available here.

Posted: 30 Jun 2021

Author: Lauren Wroe

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