3.5.1 Contextual Safeguarding


In October 2020, this chapter was updated and replaces previous chapters on: Gang Activity; Contextual Safeguarding; Child Criminal Exploitation; Sexual Exploitation.

1. Introduction

Contextual Safeguarding represents a recently-developed child protection framework. Traditional approaches to protecting children/young people from harm have focussed on the risk of violence and abuse from inside the home, usually from a parent/carer or other trusted adult and don’t always address the time that children/young people spend outside the home and the influence of peers on young people’s development and safety.

Contextual Safeguarding shifts the child protection emphasis to include family dynamics as well as peer relations, schools and other environments such as community locations. Contextual Safeguarding seeks to identify and respond to harm and abuse posed to young people outside their home, either from adults or other young people. As individuals move from early childhood and into adolescence they spend increasing amounts of time socialising independently of their families. During this time the nature of young people’s schools, neighbourhoods, and social media platforms and the relationships that they form in these settings, inform the extent to which they encounter protection or abuse.

These extra-familial threats might arise at school and other educational establishments, from within peer groups, or more widely from within the wider community and/or online.

Social Media Chart

These threats can take a variety of different forms and children can be vulnerable to multiple threats, including: exploitation by criminal gangs and organised crime groups such as county lines; trafficking, online abuse; sexual exploitation and the influences of extremism leading to radicalisation.

The exploitation of children is child abuse and is completely unacceptable; the only effective way to tackle the exploitation of children is via effective multi-agency and partnership working. The SCSP will work together to implement a Contextual Safeguarding approach to mitigate the risks to children and young people by reducing the incidence of missing episodes and safeguard children and young people from child exploitation, trafficking and modern day slavery.

See also Sheffield Contextual Safeguarding Strategy (to follow).

2. Defining Contextual Safeguarding

British social researcher Dr Carleen Firmin, University of Bedfordshire, used the term Contextual Safeguarding to describe child protection approaches that might engage and respond to extra-familial risk or abuse.

“Contextual Safeguarding is an approach to understanding, and responding to, young people's experiences of significant harm beyond their families. It recognises that the different relationships that young people form in their neighbourhoods, schools and online can feature violence and abuse. Parents and carers have little influence over these contexts, and young people's experiences of extra-familial abuse can undermine parent-child relationships. Therefore children's social care practitioners need to engage with individuals and sectors who do have influence over/within extra- familial contexts, and recognise that assessment of, and intervention with, these spaces are a critical part of safeguarding practices. Contextual Safeguarding, therefore, expands the objectives of child protection systems in recognition that young people are vulnerable to abuse in a range of social contexts.”
(Firmin 2017)

3. Why is Context Important?

We are all well aware that as children move into adolescence they spend increasing amounts of time socialising independently of their families. Peer relationships become increasingly important during this time, and these will influence young people’s experiences, behaviours and choices. These relationships are in turn shaped by the school, neighbourhood and online world in which they develop. So, if young people socialise in safe and protective settings they are more likely to form supportive and positive peer relationships. However if they form friendships in contexts characterised by violence and/or harmful attitudes the behaviours they promote are more likely to be problematic or unsafe –however, the young people themselves may see these behaviours as a means of navigating, or surviving in, those spaces.

Therefore practitioners need to engage with individuals and sectors who do have influence over/within extra-familial contexts, and recognise that assessment of, and intervention with, these spaces are a critical part of safeguarding practices.

4. Contextual Safeguarding Across the Partnership

Contextual Safeguarding has powerful implications not only for social care but also for agencies within the partnership. The Contextual Safeguarding Framework (Firmin et al. 2016), provides a conceptual, strategic and operational framework that identifies four key ‘domains’. A Contextual Safeguarding System:

  1. Targets the contexts (and social conditions) associated with abuse;
  2. Uses a child protection rather than community safety legislative framework to develop responses to extra-familial harm;
  3. Features partnerships between children’s services and young people, parents, wider communities along with the range of agencies who have a reach into the places and spaces where extra-familial harm occurs;
  4. Measures contextual impact of its work – and the change it creates in public, education and peer settings, as well as for individual children and families.

As such Contextual Safeguarding requires a realignment of agencies and other organisations working together to the best interests of vulnerable young people. Our response to contextual safeguarding developed through the safeguarding strategy 2020 has been designed to protect young people where the risks are outside of their families. It has been developed in line with the requirements in the inspections of OFSTED local authority children's services (ILACS) framework.

In recognising and responding to contextual safeguarding issues, services in Sheffield have re-affirmed their commitment to recognising and responding to child sexual exploitation, child criminal exploitation and the criminalisation of our young people.

Through the contextual safeguarding strategy we will achieve:

  • Shared understanding of risks;
  • Shared workforce development;
  • Shared pathways;
  • Shared responsibility to use our collective powers and tools to protect our vulnerable young people.

The main principle that covers Sheffield’s response to contextual safeguarding is multi-agency working is that no one agency is able to respond effectively to these issues. We have therefore adopted a partnership approach including a range of different organisations and agencies, including:

  • Children’s Social Care and Safeguarding Services(Sheffield City Council);
  • Sheffield Youth Justice Service;
  • South Yorkshire Police;
  • Early Help Services;
  • Missing Young People Services;
  • Education providers;
  • Voluntary Sector Organisations;
  • Public Health;
  • Commissioning (Sheffield City Council).

All of the services mentioned that are working as part of a co-ordinated response to these issues involve multi-agency working with many of the teams being co-located (see also Amber Project).

The delivery model identifies parallel complexities such as gang involvement, substance misuse, missing episodes and exploitation to inform interventions, reduce immediate harm and support and protect the young person, their families, peers, social spaces and communities more robustly.

The Model we have adopted is underpinned by the following principles:

  • Effective information sharing protocols managed through the Sheffield Children Safeguarding Partnership will underpin our work;
  • Cross partnership information will inform our decision making, prioritisation and risk management;
  • We will work towards integrated multi-agency working across Sheffield;
  • All relevant services will use the signs of safety framework to take a whole family approach to assessing and addressing need at the earliest opportunity;
  • Commissioners will work together with robust governance; we are clear about what we want and make sure it is delivered;
  • We will have practice standards and workforce development to support all staff to deliver good quality services;
  • We will have excellent service delivery across all commissioned and local authority services evidenced through Performance Management and Quality Assurance;
  • We will listen to feedback from all stakeholders including children and families and this informs what we do;
  • We will have an effective communications plan so everyone is clear and understands about Early Help.