“As well as threats to the welfare of children from within their families, children may be vulnerable to abuse, or exploitation from outside their families.” Working Together to Safeguard Children (2018), paragraph 33
For the first time, Working Together to Safeguard Children (2018) and Keeping Children Safe in Education (2018) refer to Contextual Safeguarding. This is a conceptual framework for understanding, assessing, and reducing the risk of harm from outside the family home.
Contextual Safeguarding is based on research and extensive trials in multi-agency safeguarding hubs, led by Dr Carlene Firmin, Principal Research Fellow, University of Bedfordshire. Information about the research and its practical application can be found at the Contextual Safeguarding network (www.contextualsafeguarding.org.uk ). Membership of the network is free and allows access to a wealth of resources.
Contextual Safeguarding seeks to understand child protection risks from beyond the family. This becomes of increasing importance for adolescents who naturally begin to spend more time out of their home and under the influence of their peers. In the neighbourhood, young people can be negatively affected by a range of risks as they spend more and more time in retail areas, open spaces, and on public transport. Those seeking to safeguard young people therefore need to assess and intervene in these places.
Research shows us that teenagers are influenced more by their peers and wider relationships than their parents and the pervading attitudes and social norms of their social group may be positive or negative. A safe, supportive, and effective peer group will engender positive relationships, whilst negative experiences may lead to violent, coercive, and harmful behaviours.
Contextual Safeguarding extends the capacity to safeguard from the home to the neighbourhood, and other places where teenagers spend their time, including schools and colleges. Contextual Safeguarding theory considers the dynamic ‘interplay’ between the child, family, peers, school, and neighbourhood; and the ‘weight of influence’ presented by the attitude of their peers.
For example, while parents, carers, and teachers may emphasise the harm from smoking cannabis, the peer group may endemically play down the dangers and illegality, and may even imply that members of the group should smoke the drug to be accepted. The influence of the group is greater than that of parents.
Firmin and her colleagues identified four domains that need to be present for Contextual Safeguarding to be effective:
- Target: prevent, identify, assess, and intervene with the social conditions of abuse
- Legislation: incorporate extra-familial contexts into child protection frameworks
- Partnerships: with sectors/individuals responsible for the nature extra-familial contexts
- Outcome measures: monitor outcomes for success in relation to contextual, as well as individual change
The Contextual Safeguarding system aims to disrupt or limit harmful extra-familial contexts, to reduce the risk of harm. For example, a park as a source of sexual exploitation may have extra lighting installed, bushes cut back, and increased police or council patrols. There is an emphasis on everyone working in the neighbourhood to play their part, including street cleaners, bus drivers, and retailers. This contributes to a wider understanding of how the neighbourhood is used in antisocial or unsafe ways.
“Contextual Safeguarding … means assessment of children should consider whether wider environmental factors are present in a child's life, that are a threat to their safety, and/or welfare … so, it's important that schools and colleges provide as much information as possible as part of the referral process.” Keeping Children Safe in Education, (2018), paragraph 52
When schools have concerns about teenagers in particular, they should always consider the wider context and sources of influence on the young person.