Contextual safeguarding promotes the idea that young people’s behaviours, levels of vulnerability and levels of resilience are all informed by the social/public, as well as private, contexts in which young people spend their time. Drawing upon research into adolescent development, it recognises that as children grow they spend increasing amounts of time socialising with peers, at school and in public environments independently of parental/carer supervision. When spending time in these extra-familial contexts young people may be exposed to healthy norms which promote pro-social relationships or they may encounter harmful norms that are conducive to abusive and exploitative relationships. As a result local responses need to identify, assess, and intervene in all of the social environments where the abuse and exploitation of young people occurs – in essence to take a ‘contextual’ approach to safeguarding.
Although child protection and safeguarding structures routinely engage with the impact that abuse within the home can have on young people, they are yet to consistently engage with these other social environments. Contextual safeguarding practice addresses this gap by focusing on cases and the environments connected to these cases, rather than exclusively focusing on interventions with individuals.
Systemic approaches to practice already recognise young people within a range of social systems and the relationships between those systems. Contextual safeguarding builds upon this by considering interventions to change the systems themselves. We know that professionals, other adults and young people play a role in shaping the environments in which abuse occurs. Therefore rather than removing children from harmful environments (unless absolutely necessary), a contextual approach seeks to identify the ways in which professionals, adults and young people can change the social conditions of environments in which abuse has occurred and then hold them responsible for making these changes.
For instance, rather than housing professionals trying to relocate a young person they may seek to involve youth workers and safer neighbourhood teams to make the housing, in which the young person already lives, safer. Likewise, rather than education professionals moving a young person from a school in which they had been raped, professionals could work with the school leadership and student body to challenge harmful, gendered school cultures, thus improving the pre-existing school environment.
Many local authorities have started implementing contextual approaches to safeguarding. Examples include:
For an in-depth understanding of the theory behind contextual safeguarding, you can read Dr. Carlene Firmin’s thesis: ‘Peer on peer abuse: safeguarding implications of contextualising abuse between young people within social fields’