Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people

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Safeguarding, adolescents and Coronavirus – Contextual Safeguarding during lockdown

Last updated: 31 Mar 2020

This blog was written by Dr Lauren Wroe, Research Fellow in the Contextual Safeguarding team.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 that was rushed through Parliament last week introduces increased powers for the police to stop, arrest and detain individuals who are not complying by lockdown guidance. In the past week we have seen examples of groups of people being dispersed from public spaces and told to go home. The measures introduced in the Act, accompanied by a worrying deregulation of social care duties, have been challenged by human rights groups who point out that the legislation bolsters a criminal justice response in lieu of public health protections. Contextual Safeguarding has been working hard with local authorities across the country to embed approaches to child safeguarding that seek to decriminalise young people and to offer social and contextual solutions to the harms they experience. We are concerned that the measures laid out in the Act could undermine fledgling attempts to ensure young people who are experiencing extra-familial harm are safeguarded and not criminalised.

The current restrictions imposed on day-to-day life are essential to safeguard ourselves, our families and our communities from the impact of Coronavirus. At the same time, they have significant implications for the safeguarding of children and young people. Restrictions on leaving our homes have obvious safety implications for children who experience harm at home or where domestic abuse is a feature of day to day life. However, social distancing and lockdown restrictions also have implications for young people who experience harm outside of their homes. Current restrictions laid out by the government essentially force young people to stay at home, away from the extra-familial contexts where some will have been experiencing harm – in their peer groups, at school and in their neighbourhoods. But ironically, this does not necessarily equate to increased safety for these young people.

Many of the pressures that are recognised are precursors for young people’s experiences of extra-familial harm (being out of school and poverty are two major drivers) are significantly amplified by current schools closures and economic uncertainty. Whilst enforced lockdown may helpfully separate some young people from the harmful contexts they have been navigating, it also separates them from protective friends and spaces that may offer respite for difficult home environments. We know from adolescent developmental theory that adolescents may struggle to balance the risks associated with Coronavirus with the pull to be with their friends over the coming weeks. Similarly, for young people who are being controlled by people or situations outside of their homes and threatened with violence or debts, the need to leave their homes and be in the streets may feel safer than staying in.

We call on all those who may be tasked with enforcing this lockdown: professionals, parents, members of the community, to be sensitive to the pulls and pushes that might make it difficult (and unsafe) for some young people to #stayhome. And to take a sensitive and enabling approach to supporting young people to follow current social distancing guidance. At the same time we must be vigilant to ensure that increased policing powers do not disproportionately impact young people who are already subject to high levels of policing in their communities: specifically BAME young people, young people in care and young people with learning disabilities and mental ill health. Such over-policing detrimentally affects young people’s relationships with services and protective structures.

If there is anything we are learning through our on-going programme of work at Contextual Safeguarding, it is that meaningful and lasting safety comes about when we create systems and structures that enable it, not just enforce it. We mustn’t lose focus of that commitment during these exceptional times.

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