Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people

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The limitations of individualised approaches to safeguarding young people

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In this blog Gayanthi Hapuarachchi, Contextual Safeguarding Project Administrator, shares a case study she wrote to reflect on the limitations of individualised approaches to safeguarding within our child protection system. This was an exercise conducted as part of the Contextual Safeguarding short course that we are currently piloting.

This blog will look at evidence of how current gaps within the child protection system result in individualised rather than contextual approach to child protection. We will briefly consider how the current approach stems from how institutionally the child protection system has been structured along with the legal framework it is governed upon, the gaps which results in an individual centred approach and practical examples of how an individual not contextual approach, is often taken by child protection services.

The child protection system primarily is focused on parental capacity and child development needs as well as family and environmental factors (LCPP Assessment triangle) which means the traditional reach of child protection can be found to be in the private sphere of homes and not the wider peer group, school and neighbourhood. This is further affirmed by the Children’s Act 2004 and the referral system which has been built around child protection.

In recent years, this has meant alarming gaps can be found within the system of child protection. These include a failure of the child protection system to identify institutional based abuse, a failure to address peer-on-peer abuse, a failure to address “hotspot” based abuse and exploitation, high threshold for referrals and a failure for multi-agency involved in child protection to communicate and work together. These gaps have ultimately meant that often child protection has been focused on the problems faced by the child and often within the realms of their insular familiar home without taking a wider contextual approach.

One simple example is the landmark case of Bella aged 6 (pseudonym) in 2018 who was subject to a series of rapes on the school playground. The approach taken to address the sexual abuse was primarily to relocate the boys (also aged 6) to different schools. However, the child protection response did not address the safety issues surrounding the actual playground where the sexual abuse occurred on multiple occasions or the insufficient training given to primary school staff, despite the fact one teacher had seen the girl with her underwear at her ankles after one of the sexual assaults had occurred. Furthermore, as Bella came from a stable household she did not meet the threshold for further referral down the system and was denied any access to therapy or physiologists by the state. This example highlights how gaps in the child protection system meant a narrow, individual approach centred on the children was taken rather than looking at the wider issues which allowed for the abuse to occur.

An example on a grander scale of how the child protection system takes an individual-centred approach is presented in police response to the Rochdale Sex Abuse Ring which operated between 2008-09. This Sex Abuse Ring composed of well-respected men within their community preying on white teenage girls from low income backgrounds. Over the two years multiple victims went to the police to report the sexual abuse they experienced. However, the police chose to take an individualised approach focusing on the family backgrounds of the individual victims and insinuated the way the girls dressed, the choices they made and their lifestyle had led to the sexual abuse. In this instance a contextual approach would have identified that the sexual exploitation was on a much wider scale; the girls who were sexually abused frequented two takeaway joints in Rochdale which had become known hotspot areas for the gang to come into contact with their victims initially. Ultimately, the victims were vulnerable teenagers from deprived, dysfunctional backgrounds, who were targeted in "honeypot locations" where young people congregated, such as takeaway food shops. The individualised approach which the child protection system requires officers to take would have unlikely been able to target the origin of the abuse.

Ultimately, while traditionally the manner in which the child protection system is structured has favoured an individualised approach, strides are now being taken to try and address the gaps in the system. As it becomes evident that the current system cannot address systematic or institutional based abuse or peer-on peer abuse it has pushed for child protection agencies to look for wider solutions. One such approach is Contextual Safeguarding which not only offers a manner in which these gaps can be addressed it also ensures that solutions for protection of a child will not only be based on individual circumstances but on those which help keep children in similar circumstances or environments safe from abuse as well.

Posted: 21 Feb 2019

Author: Delphine Peace

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