Hannah Millar is a Research Assistant in the Contextual Safeguarding team, currently working on the 'London Scale Up' project. Hannah previously worked in frontline practice and is interested in the experiences of young people, particularly in the care and criminal justice systems. Hannah's work with the Contextual Safeguarding team focuses on how young people can meaningfully participate in systems change research.
‘You can’t expect an adult to know exactly what to do no matter how long they’ve been in the business.’
This is a quote from a young person who has been involved in research with the Contextual Safeguarding team and, for me, affirms the value of young people being part of the systems that are set up to protect them.
Before joining the Contextual Safeguarding team, I have been involved in research into the representation of young people in mainstream media; including representations of young people as a ‘threat’ and Black young people as 'gang involved'. When I began volunteering at open-access youth sessions I discovered that some young people had internalised these media messages; with one young person stating: ’well I am not part of society’. This direct insight revealed deep-rooted issues within our society, that can be mirrored in our child welfare systems. For me, it is important that these issues are considered when thinking about system change in child protection, and whose voice matters.
Since then, I have spent ten years in frontline practice listening to young people share their experiences in different contexts; from home, to care settings, to school, and their neighbourhoods. While their stories have often been filled with hurt and injustice, young people’s hope and focus for things to improve is motivating. In my recent role as an advocate, I worked with young people to try to make the systems in place to protect and support them, work for them. It often wasn’t an easy task and at times I felt like I was putting plasters on wounds – working with different young people, affected by the same issues, within the same local authorities. The struggle within the statutory and Voluntary and Community Sector to secure long-term funding, limited resources, alongside higher levels of bureaucracy and risk management were creating challenging working environments that I sometimes found made it hard to keep young people’s lives at the centre of service development and provision. This experience emphasised for me the need for change, not just for individual young people, but at a systemic and societal level.
My work with Contextual Safeguarding
I joined the Contextual Safeguarding team in April 2020 so that I could unite my frontline professional experience with research. The London ‘Scale Up’ project supports four London boroughs (Barking and Dagenham, Ealing, Merton and Sutton) to embed Contextual Safeguarding in their child protection systems. It is important that these systems are informed by diverse and lesser-heard voices of young people, and this is the goal of my work. As the participation lead on the London Scale Up project, I have been exploring how to establish a way of working that promotes meaningful engagement. The aim is to work relationally, for young people to understand their role and to be updated on the research, and most importantly, to feel valued and to get something out of their involvement.
So how are young people involved in the research? It goes without saying that Covid restrictions have made this part of my role more challenging, as virtual working simply cannot replicate, or come close to in-person engagement. As Contextual Safeguarding is interested in young people’s contexts, it can feel limiting to be confined to the virtual space, and not to be able to explore their spaces with them as part of this research. However, I have been able to engage with young people remotely, and one area that I have particularly focused on is how to talk to young people about a Contextual Safeguarding approach without using jargon, including saying 'contextual safeguarding'. I have developed a scenario-based activity that outlines different child protection responses to young people affected by 'extra-familial' forms of harm: a typical statutory response and a Contextual Safeguarding response. These are then used in remote discussions with young people. Initial feedback from consultation with the Young Researcher’s Advisory Panel at our University, suggests that this is an accessible approach that is effective in introducing Contextual Safeguarding and exploring its values. This activity has opened up discussions on the issues that affect young people: who is responsible for keeping them safe, do Contextual Safeguarding approaches make sense, and how should information be shared? Young people’s views will inform the on-going implementation of the approach in the London boroughs and nationally.
What are young people saying so far?
While engagement is very much in the early stages, there are some emerging themes and questions.
For many children and young people growing up, contact with Children’s services may be non-existent or very limited, but in some areas and communities having a social worker is not uncommon. Government statistics identified almost 400,000 under 18s as Children in Need, with over 50,000 subject to Child Protection Plans, at the end of March 2019. Yet one young person I spoke to pointed out that: ‘young people don’t understand the context of safeguarding….they don’t understand all of the processes, that is really, really, really hard.’ This indicates a potential barrier, if young people do not understand safeguarding systems, how can Contextual Safeguarding become understandable and accessible as an approach for keeping young people safe?
Stigma of social services
Similarly, the stigma associated with social services, that may prevent meaningful engagement by young people and parents, was discussed. As one young person explained: ‘we have to gain their [parents] trust as well as the young person....because as I said, if my mum says I’m not going, I’m not going, but if she says I’m going, I’m going.’ Another young person shared that: ‘when people hear “Social Services”, they kinda get more worried that they’ll get taken away from their parents’. How can Contextual Safeguarding facilitate improved collaborative working that can begin to cultivate greater trust between communities and services?
Relationships emerged as essential to keeping young people safe. Young people expressed that: ‘some level of consistency and persistence needs to be involved.’ And another young person explained: ‘it might be long, but if you want it to be effective you’ve got to build that relationship’. One young person simply said: ‘it’s all about building relationships.’
Agency and choice were flagged as central to trust: 'trust isn’t always just about letting you know what’s going on...you’re still going to be vulnerable if you have somebody making all decisions.’ How can Contextual Safeguarding support an approach that works with young people so that they can meaningfully participate in plans to keep them safe?
My work will continue to focus on engaging young people in the London Scale Up areas, working with the four boroughs to look at how young people's views on Contextual Safeguarding can inform the changes underway in local services. Rather than focus on whether young people are ‘engaging’ with services or not, we are working with the boroughs to reflect on what aspects of the system are set up to listen, record and then act in response to what young people are saying about their contexts, and where there is more work to be done. For Contextual Safeguarding to be effectively embedded, young people’s voices will need to sit alongside those of professionals. System change work is messy work, and as practitioners and researchers we don’t always know what to do, and that is ok. The London and National Scale Up projects provide an opportunity to work with young people to build protective community environments for everyone. In my experience, there are many young people who would welcome a shift toward greater participatory working, as one young person said to me: ‘the whole point is to empower young people and make them feel in control, to be able to make competent smart decisions for themselves.’
Follow up: If you are a young person or practitioner working in the four London 'Scale Up' boroughs, and would like to get involved in the research, then please get in touch. Equally, if you have experience of being part of innovative participation work with young people (as a young person, practitioner or academic) then I am interested in hearing about your learning. I can be contacted here: Hannah.firstname.lastname@example.org