Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people

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Tackling extra-familial harm – relationships of care and trust, or relationships or surveillance and control?

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Dr Lauren Wroe is a Research Fellow in the Contextual Safeguarding programme and is currently working on the 'Securing Safety' and 'Beyond Referrals' research projects exploring safeguarding responses to extra-familial harm, in local authorities, schools, and the voluntary and community sector respectively.

In the last decade, prompted by a number of high profile cases of child abuse specifically targeting adolescents, safeguarding systems in the UK have had to expand and broaden their understanding of, and response to, child harm. This has been a welcomed move; with the sector having to reflect on language, thresholds and interventions that have previously excluded, and in some cases criminalised, adolescents who experience abuse outside of their homes.

However, attempts to safeguard adolescents from previously unrecognised harms – such as child sexual exploitation or child criminal exploitation – do not simply require an expansion of child protection systems to a broader age group, new locations, or different types of harm. It also requires an interrogation of the systems and attitudes that have allowed adolescents to be criminalised, blamed and made responsible for the harm they have experienced. Contextual safeguarding isn’t simply about expanding the remit of child protection systems, but about asking difficult questions about the systems that already exist. Scholars, practitioners and campaigners in the field of child exploitation point to a number of ways in which child protection systems and multi-agency statutory partnerships are challenged in their ability to respond to child exploitation and harm in an ethical way, promoting social justice values as prescribed by our professional bodies. For example, the extent to which ‘risk’ discourses and practices expand punitive state interventions in to the lives of already marginalised people and communities[1], in gendered, classed and racialised ways[2][3]; or the ability of the current child protection system to address structural inequalities that underpin and provide an enabling context for a range of child harms[4][5][6], or the extent to which child protection systems are responsive to the intersectional identities of the children and families they work with.[7] [8]

To acknowledge, reflect and continue these important interventions, in the last year, the Contextual Safeguarding programme has published a values and principles framework that underpins, and complements the four domains of Contextual Safeguarding. This framework reflects the values, ethics and practices we want to take from more traditional forms of child and family practice, and those we want to leave behind. This work has been prompted by conversations within our team about how Contextual Safeguarding, as an approach to safeguarding children from extra-familial forms of harm, is being applied in different areas of the country; the practices we love and the ones that have forced us to look at the ‘domains’ and ask: what are the values of this framework and can you achieve contextual safety for young people without adhering to certain ethical positions?

One set of practices in particular that have got us back to the drawing board are those that use surveillance methods and technologies, including accessing and sharing of data in expansive and new ways (i.e. social media) to monitor young people, particularly those young people who are deemed to be ‘at risk’ and those that do so without the knowledge or consent of young people and their parents. In 2019 myself and my Contexual Safeguarding colleague Jenny Lloyd, published a paper ‘Watching over or working with? Understanding social work innovation in response to extra-familial harm’ we looked at two projects that are seeking to address a particular, or multiple, forms of EFH by bringing together multi-agency partnerships and innovating in both the target and the methods of interventions through community work, community engagement and community profiling. We reviewed academic literature on what constitutes relationships of care and trust and relationships of surveillance and control to create the tool below. We then examined the focus and rationale, the methods and the impact of the projects this tool. We found that there was a degree of variation between how different responses to EFH: worked with, and collaborated, with young people and communities in service design and implementation, or engaged young people only in service delivery; stored and shared young people’s data, with varying safeguards around how data was used; sought to, or did, address contextual or structural factors impacting young people’s experiences of harm and safety (for a previous blog post on the paper see here).

Relationships Of Trust Surveillance Diagram ARTWORK

This tool is organised around two relational principles: relationships that are characterised by trust and care, and those that are characterised by surveillance and control. Throughout 2020, others in the Contextual Safeguarding team have been developing work with academic and voluntary and community sector (VCS) partners looking at the nature of relational practice as a core principle of a Contextual Safeguarding approach (linked to the Contextual Safeguarding principles of ‘collaboration’, ‘evidence-informed’ and ‘children’s rights’). Owen’s, Ruch, Firmin, Millar and Remes[9] have explored the relationship between Contextual Safeguarding and Relationship Based Practice, noting that both approaches seek to safeguard young people by understanding and utilising relationships in context, in doing so acknowledging the ‘intervening power’ of relationships; promoting collaborative approaches to building and sustaining safety; and responding to behaviour as a form of communication. Importantly, both approaches require practitioners to work in ways that promote relationships of trust and to work with, and from the perspective of, young people:

Seeing a community, street, school, or bus stop from a young person’s perspective – and having that perspective shape the plan that is put in place – is achieved through, and builds, relationships between young people and professionals and leads to effective interventions within those contexts.

(Owen’s et al, 2020:7)

Similarly, in a collaborative piece of work with VCS organisation Safer London[10], principles of trust and transparency were surfaced in relation to ‘peer mapping’, a method proposed as part of a ‘peer assessment’:

As with all work with young people, the Safer London practitioner will explain that they would have to share information from the sessions if they become worried about anyone’s safety. This enables young people to make an informed decision about what they disclose. A young person may choose to share information about a peer they are worried about precisely because they want a professional intervention. Equally, they may be worried about getting peers into trouble by telling professionals about them.

(Latimer, Elias, Firmin, 2020: 11)

Noting additionally that:

The young person may chose not to allow the practitioner to keep a copy of the map. If the young person wants to keep hold of the map, the practitioner may suggest that they store it somewhere safe, due to its private nature. It may also be appropriate to ask the young person for consent to share the map with someone specific – e.g. a social worker or parent – and to plan this conversation with them.

(Latimer, Elias, Firmin, 2020: 11)

These proposed methods responded to practitioners concerns about data security, and the legal basis for collecting and storing information about a young person’s peers. This is echoed in the updated Contextual Safeguarding Legal Briefing (2020)[1] which notes that peer and context assessment are features of a Contextual Safeguarding approach that do not currently have a clear legal basis:

On [this] matter, present practice related to peer assessment varies hugely around the country in the absence of a clear legal threshold for initiating them. The grounds upon which peer assessment should be followed by plans – and the expected multi-agency contribution to such plans – is all unclear; as is the associations of this practice to GDPR legislation and the UNCRC.

(Firmin and Knowles, 2020:15)

The Legal Briefing additionally notes that, whilst Working Together currently states that information sharing is required when young people are connected to the same contextual concerns, statutory guidance is required to clarify:

b) The legal basis upon which peer assessments are conducted and information about peers is shared (with who and when) to both develop the assessment and act on it.

For example working alongside, and informing, young people and their parents about information is recorded and shared on peer assessments; and agreeing the level of information share with partner agencies, and what actions they can/can’t take in response (such as schools and the police).

c) The key information sharing considerations when conducting peer assessments to ensure children’s rights (in accordance with UNCRC) are protected alongside efforts to safeguard their welfare.

These updates in the 2020 legal briefing seek clarity on the legal basis, GDPR and rights implications of peer and context assessment work, and also call for statutory guidance for local authorities on how such work can be carried out within a child welfare (rather than, say, community safety) framework. Finally the briefing recommends that local areas consult young people, parents and communities on any revisions they make to their safeguarding practices in order to respond to harm outside of the home:

particularly to explore issues of consent, information sharing in regards to groups/locations, and involving parents and young people in meetings focused on groups/contexts rather than children and families

These developments over the last year in the Contextual Safeguarding programme have surfaced a number of unanswered questions, the need for further legal and statutory guidance in relation to statutory responses to extra-familial harm and have helpfully highlighted areas of best practice that begin to traverse this complexity.

Later this year, my Contextual Safeguarding colleague Molly Mannister and I will apply the tool introduced in this blog post to innovations that are taking place as part of the Contextual Safeguarding ‘scale-up’ sites across England and Wales. In particular, we aim to understand the conditions that enable or create barriers to delivering services centred on relationships of trust or relationships of surveillance and monitoring. Returning to the literature that inspired the tool, Hingley-Jones and Ruch’s (2016)[12] work points to ways in which financially austere socio-political climates create a ‘relational austerity’ (2016, p. 237), where practice takes on an authoritative and combative approach, rather than one which is assertive and compassionate. As the pandemic and recession put further strain on local authorities, compounding the austerity policies and defunding discussed in Hingley-Jones and Ruch’s work, we seek to explore the conditions (both national and local) that generate surveillance and control approaches to child welfare, and those that facilitate relational work with young people, families and communities.

If you are interested in joining the conversation, have used the tool to explore your own practice, or have ideas from your practice to share on these themes, please email lauren.wroe@beds.ac.uk.

[1] Gadd, D. & Broad, R. (2018). Troubling recognitions in British responses to modern slavery. British Journal of Criminology, 58, 1440 – 1461.

[2] Williams, P. and Clarke, B. (2016). Dangerous Associations: Joint Enterprise, Gangs and Racism: An Analysis of the Process of Criminalisation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals. Centre for Crime and Justice Studies: London.

[3] Vaughn, L. (2019), “‘Doing risk’: practitioner interpretations of risk of childhood radicalisation and the implementation of the HM government PREVENT duty”, Doctoral thesis. University of Liverpool. Liverpool.

[4] Bennet, D. L., Mason, K. E., Schluter, D. K., Wickham, S., Lai, E, TC., Alexiou, A., Barr, B., and Taylor-Robinson, D. (2020). Trends in inequalities in Children Looked After in England between 2004 and 2019: a local area ecological analysis. BMJ Open, 10. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2020-041774

[5] Bywaters, P., Kwhali, J., Brady, G., Sparks, T. and Bos, E. (2017), “Out of sight, out of mind: ethnic inequalities in child protection and out-of-Home care intervention rates”, British Journal of Social Work, 47, 1884-1902.

[6] Featherstone, B., Gupta, A., Morris, K. and White, S. (2018). Protecting Children a Social Model. Policy Press: Bristol.

[7] Bernard, C. (2019) ‘Using an intersectional lens to examine the child sexual exploitation of black adolescents’ in Pearce, J (ed) Child Sexual Exploitation: why theory matters. Policy Press, Bristol : 193-209

[8] Davis, J. and Marsh, N. (2020). Boys to men: the cost of adultification in safeguarding responses to black boys. Critical and Radical Social Work, 8:2, 255-259.

[9] Relationship-based Practice and Contextual Safeguarding Briefing – available here

[10] Opportunities for peer safeguarding Briefing: available here

[11] The legal and policy framework for Contextual Safeguarding approaches: A 2020 update on the 2018 legal briefing: available here

[12] Hingley-Jones, Helen, and Gillian Ruch. 2016. ‘Stumbling through’? Relationships-based social work practice in austere times. Journal of Social Work Practice 30: 235–48. [CrossRef]

Posted: 22 Jun 2021

Author: Lauren Wroe

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