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3.4.5 Contextual Safeguarding


Working Together to Safeguard Children, paragraph 33 – 37

Contextual Safeguarding Network

NOTE: Additional local information will be added at the next update of the procedures.


In March 2020, minor amendments were made in line with local practice. This chapter is currently under review and additional information will be added at the next update of the procedures.

1. Introduction

Contextual Safeguarding represents a recently-developed child protection framework. With an emphasis on the nature of extra-familial risk, 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 in this respect is based upon deepening services' understanding of the subtext of these environmental factors.

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. 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 and Contextual Safeguarding takes into consideration group dynamics and learned behaviours that can centre on violence, retribution, honour and respect.

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. Extremist groups make use of the internet to radicalise and recruit and to promote extremist materials. Any potential harmful effects to individuals identified as vulnerable to extremist ideologies or being drawn into terrorism should also be considered.

2. Defining Contextual Safeguarding

Research fellow at University of Beds and architect of Contextual Safeguarding Carlene Firmin, offers this definition:

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. The Context of Contextual Safeguarding

Contextual Safeguarding is driven by improving practitioner understanding and awareness of the social issues rooted in peer relations and community. As such contextual safeguarding requires a strong awareness of the factors that inform and influence anything from risky to harmful behaviours. What for example are the extra familial risk factors for a 14 year old living at home who has been excluded from school? What are the extra familial risk factors for a 12 year old with tendencies towards violent behaviours? It is these context issues that the Contextual Safeguarding framework is based upon.

The following case example demonstrates the relationship between context and safeguarding:

Dean is groomed by a street gang in his neighbourhood to traffic drugs across the country. He is approached by them when hanging out with his friends at a local takeaway food shop. The influence of those who have groomed him means that Dean doesn't come home when his parents ask him to and stops answering their calls while running drugs. Slowly Dean's parents lose control of him and when they try to lock him in the house he physically attacks his mother to get out. Dean is one of six peers who have all been approached at the takeaway shop for the purposes of drug trafficking.

Within a Contextual Safeguarding model the risk in Dean's neighbourhood, and the group who have groomed him, appear to be more influential than his parents. Addressing this issue may in turn address the challenges that Dean is facing at home – whereas intervening with Dean's family is unlikely to impact the risks he is facing in the community. Strategically the safeguarding partnership is made aware of the trend associated to the take-away shop, a street gang, six young men and the issue of drugs trafficking and work together to design a plan for disrupting risk in that context (and thereby safeguard all six young men affected by it). At this stage Contextual Safeguarding offered a framework to shape the development of policy and practice models for safeguarding young people affected by extra-familial risks. The framework needed to be applied in order to identify the resources, structures and partnerships required to bring the model to life and test its usability.
(Firmin 2018)

4. Practice Issues

Contextual Safeguarding has powerful implications not only for social care but also for agencies such as education, police, the charity and business sector. As such Contextual Safeguarding requires a realignment of agencies and other organisations working together to the best interests of vulnerable young people. The presence of for example 'county lines' strongly demonstrates the practice implications of working to a Contextual Safeguarding framework.

Children who may be alleged perpetrators should also be assessed to understand the impact of contextual issues on their safety and welfare. Interventions should focus on addressing these wider environmental factors, which are likely to be a threat to the safety and welfare of a number of different children who may or may not be known to local authority children's social care. Assessments of children in such cases should consider the individual needs and vulnerabilities of each child. They should look at the parental capacity to support the child, including helping the parents and carers to understand any risks and support them to keep children safe and assess potential risk to child.

The Children Act 1989 promotes the view that all children and their parents should be considered as individuals and that family structures, culture, religion, ethnic origins and other characteristics should be respected. Local authorities should ensure they support and promote fundamental British values, of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

Interventions should focus on addressing the wider environmental factors, which are likely to be a threat to the safety and welfare of a number of different children who may or may not be known to local authority Children's Social Care. This may include working in partnership with regulatory services and licensed locations.

The development of a framework such as Contextual Safeguarding raises questions of roles and responsibilities and requires a revisiting of the 'capacity for safeguarding' as it impacts key agencies and wider communities. Schools for example will play a key role in the delivery of Contextual Safeguarding. In turn the relationship between agencies and organisations across the 3 sectors is likely to be affected when working to a Contextual Safeguarding brief.

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