Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people

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Thinking contextually about Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE): Emerging themes from practice in Edinburgh

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David Orr is a Team Leader in the Young People’s Service (YPS) at City of Edinburgh Council. His interest in Contextual Safeguarding stems primarily from his work with adolescents over the course of more than a decade in the field of youth justice. He is particularly interested in the emerging challenges in Scotland relating to child criminal exploitation (CCE) and developing appropriate responses informed by a commitment to children’s rights.

Thinking contextually about Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE): Emerging themes from practice in Edinburgh

Just over two years ago I remember attending a multi-agency event with representatives from social work, education, health, housing and various other statutory and voluntary sector providers, as planning had begun for the development of the latest iteration of the Children’s Services Plan for 2020 – 2023. I recall speaking with a colleague from housing and discussing the high volume of coverage in the media of the “county lines” phenomenon south of the Border, particularly in the Greater London area. I reflected on the fact that within the world of youth justice in Edinburgh, we appeared to have been mercifully spared this particular model of drug supply. I was curious whether within housing circles there were any emerging indicators of phenomena such as “cuckooing”. The response did not fill me with hope. Housing colleagues had begun to notice the tell-tale signs – properties raided, burner phones seized, drug paraphernalia recovered.

It was only a matter of time before the young people we work with started to get caught up in things. Sure enough by the summer of 2019 the first few cases of what we now know as Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) began to appear on our workload – a 15 year old with little previous history of offending behaviour caught coming out of a “trap house” with a ready supply of cash, burner phones and Class A drugs; and, a 16 year old accruing multiple charges for possession with intent to supply Class A substances, operating from his home address, the exploitation potentially placing members of his family at risk too. Suddenly we were into a new world where knowledge of the Single Competent Authority (SCA), the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and Threat to Life (TTL) Warnings became an important part of our day-to-day work.

It is useful in 2021 to stop and to take stock of the way in which our understanding of child protection has begun to evolve owing to the impact of extra familial Harm (EFH) upon adolescents in communities across the city. Pleasingly it seems that these new realities have not gone unnoticed in Scottish Government and policy circles and the new National Child Protection Guidance, due for final publication any day now, makes specific reference to the importance of a Contextual Safeguarding lens when seeking to address EFH.

Reflecting on the last couple of years spent grappling with some of these issues and what we have learned I would pick out a few salient points:

  • Serious and Organised Crime (SOC) networks involved in the distribution and supply of drugs treat young people under the age of 18 as highly disposable commodities. There is a ruthlessness and causal brutality that seems to define relationships in this world coupled with an apparent view that the insatiable appetite of individuals (the majority living in communities affected by high levels of socio-economic deprivation) for drugs means that the market is there to be serviced and no factor aside from the “bottom line” is of any real importance. It should not be surprising in a society where Zero Hours Contracts are ubiquitous that the low regard in which employees are held in the legitimate “gig economy” is mirrored in the illegal world of drug supply.
  • The code of Omertà[1] continues to hold huge sway over young people and communities. The stigma attached to being branded or seen as a “grass” and the belief that “snitches get stitches” means that SOC groups continue to operate through fear of retribution with near impunity in numerous communities. It is a disempowering feeling to speak to young people, to encourage them to share their experiences but to have to emphasise that you can offer no cast iron guarantees about their safety if they are brave enough to speak out. As such, while I would welcome the opportunity for any young person caught in this web to have a chance to participate in a Joint Investigative Interview with police and social Work, I am realistic about how many will feel comfortable taking up such an offer.
  • Voluntary sector partners and ‘peer mentors’ have a valuable role to play in trying to help young people to extricate themselves from these criminal networks. In Edinburgh, Action for Children’s SideStep Project employs a mix of ‘young people’s practitioners’ and ‘peer mentors’ who are working with young people on both a 1:1 and groupwork basis to try to offer pathways out of criminality. Sometimes a young person simply needs to hear the same advice but from a different source. With the best will in world a white, middle-class, middle-aged, male social worker may not always convey a message as powerfully as a peer mentor with lived experienced of the very situations in which these young people find themselves entangled.
  • Working with groups of young people affected by EFH poses particular challenges in comparison with more "traditional” social work with individuals and families affected by harm which occurs in the family home (such as domestic abuse and neglect). It remains the challenge for social work systems and processes to deliver sufficient responses to EFH, and the challenge in Scotland is to think about what changes need to occur to ensure that Contextual Safeguarding approaches become fully embedded in practice. Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC) certainly seems to offer solid foundations upon which to develop Contextual Safeguarding and some local authorities are beginning to make real inroads in this area, not least North Lanarkshire which is one of the test sites in The Innovate Project: Researching youth, risk and complexity.
  • We need to talk about race. Scotland remains an unusually mono-ethnic country. At the last census in 2011, the population was 96% white. On that basis the preponderance of young men from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds who have been caught in various drug operations across Edinburgh in recent years is striking. While this “data” is anecdotal, it would appear that minority groups have been heavily over-represented among those arrested and charged in relation to possession with intent to supply Class A Substances. It is an area that requires further research.


[1] Omertà – a code of silence about criminal activity and refusal to give evidence to the Police which associated with The Mafia.

For a fuller elaboration of some of themes explored in this blog please see: https://www.iriss.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-04/insights-60.pdf

Posted: 15 Sep 2021

Author: David Orr

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