Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people


Using Contextual Safeguarding to teach connections between Social Work Theory and Practice



Dr. Gill Buck is Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Chester. She spent most of her career as a Social Worker in the Youth Offending Service. Her PhD in Criminology explored peer mentoring in criminal justice. She is interested in how people employ lived experiences of criminalisation and social exclusion for social purpose.

My name is Gill and I work as a Social Work lecturer and criminal justice researcher. I spent most of my working life as a Social Worker in a Youth Offending Service and before that in a charity working to tackle child sexual exploitation. In both settings I frequently worked with young people whose communities blamed them for their experiences of abuse and exploitation. Children experiencing sexual abuse/ criminal exploitation were often spoken about in professional meetings as ‘making poor choices’ or putting themselves ‘at risk’. Their families – some of whom were being threatened or groomed by the same people abusing their children – were often held responsible for safeguarding their children from harms they felt powerless to address. This dominant professional lens meant that people exploiting children, and broader social inequalities, too often fell out of focus.

What I find helpful about Contextual Safeguarding as a theory, and approach to safeguarding, is that it focuses our professional lens more broadly. It highlights the need for ‘safeguarding partnerships to engage with individuals and sectors who do have influence over/ within extra-familial contexts’ (Contextual Safeguarding website, 2020). In other words, it invites practitioners to creatively consider a broader set of community safeguarding allies. This has the potential to move us from responsibilising children for their own abuse, toward making safeguarding everyone’s business in practice.

I lead a BA Social Work module entitled Social Work Theory and Methods, which scopes the diverse theory underpinning our practice methods. I explain the dominant assessment framework used with children and families and invite students to consider its potential and limitations with regard to extra familial abuse. I then introduce Contextual Safeguarding to students by way of Dr Firmin’s TED talk and some of the resources in the online Safeguarding Network.

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I contextualise Contextual Safeguarding within a broader history of ‘ecological systems theory’ (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Darling, 2007), which invites students to consider the range of social systems impacting personal experience (e.g. peer groups; institutions; political, cultural, environmental factors) and ways to intervene in these various systems.

When possible, we have a practitioner partner from Knowsley local authority come in to talk to students about how the approach is being embedded on the ground. Knowsley is part of a pilot project with the University of Bedfordshire, working to embed a contextual safeguarding system within its Children’s Services. A worker from the Youth Offending Service explains to students how Contextual Safeguarding is drawn upon when working with young people to consider and collaboratively plan for risks and protective factors in a child’s home, school, neighbourhood and peer networks.


The video and written resources in the Contextual Safeguarding network are clear and accessible, enabling students to see how broad theories (such as systems theory) can be operationalised through collaborative assessment and planning tools that include the child, family and their broader networks in seeking solutions. Student feedback has been very good, they especially like real-life practitioners making links between contemporary issues such as criminal exploitation and Contextual Safeguarding. A challenge has been getting them to imagine how broader stakeholders are involved in practical terms (e.g. taxi drivers/ parks staff). For those wishing to include Contextual Safeguarding in their teaching, it may be good to include some role play/ illustration videos of these collaborations happening in practice.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Harvard University Press.

Darling, N. (2007). Ecological systems theory: The person in the center of the circles. Research in human development, 4(3-4), 203-217.

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

Posted: 31 Mar 2021

Author: Lauren Wroe

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