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To start by introducing myself, I am the Team Manager for a Family Group Conferencing (FGC) Service in Southeast Kent.  We have been running since 2002 and take referrals from social workers where children are on the ‘edge of care’. In Kent we facilitate around 800 meetings a year. For those who are not aware, a Family Group Conference is a collaborative and restorative meeting which gives the wider family a voice in social care processes which effect their family. The coordinators who facilitate the conferences take a neutral role and focus solely on running the meeting and engaging the wider network. The neutrality of their role helps them to build a relationship with families with whom professional agencies struggle to engage. 

In March 2017, following an Ofsted Report that found “detailed analysis of children who go missing identified gaps in the recording of the reasons why children run away. Improving this has resulted in the identification of an increase in children looked after going missing to see family and friends, and to emerging targeted work to support older children to enjoy this contact in a more planned way’”, we decided to use FGCs to plan for frequently missing young people, involving them, their family, professionals, and their carers in planning how the young person can be kept safe. 

Subsequently, Ofsted noted that the Missing FGC work proved very successful in reducing missing episodes and increasing placement stablisation.  It was on the back of this that we were asked to use a Contextual Safeguarding approach to run community conferences – and here the story begins.

11th November 2019 – to March 2020

 Meeting with Rachael Owens – in County Hall. 

I had been invited by Kent Academy (our professional development team) to meet with Rachael Owens from the Contextual Safeguarding Research Team. I was told that Carlene Firmin and her team of researchers were working with Kent to explore how we could improve safety for young people by looking at their wider context. I felt excited by this concept (even if I didn’t fully understand it yet – I was about to go on a learning curve that I wasn’t expecting). I had heard about Contextual Safeguarding, but Rachael explained it in more depth and talked to me about the website and how to access and use it. She asked me if I thought we could take the “missing” work one step further – to involve the wider community in FGCs to address extra-familial risk for adolescents. To look not just at what was pushing young people out of the home, but what was pulling them out. From friends, peers, status, and identity. It blew my mind a bit, I was excited at the prospect and scared of change! We had meetings to discuss the possible processes, thinking about what we would need to know from a referral form, what we might try to achieve (safety in the community) and how we might evaluate the outcomes.

Lightbulb moment – we wouldn’t focus on the young people as individuals – we decided it would be more productive to go to residents and businesses and talk about their neighbourhood and about increasing safety for the whole community. We would approach all those we wanted to participate by asking them how they wanted to improve their community. This negated a lot of possible issues such as confidentially and “blaming” of young people.  It was a defining point for us, which really made a difference on the ground.

First Case February 2020

Then, feet first, we started with a referral from the local District Contextual Safeguarding Group for a coastal town where young Roma women were at risk of exploitation and were “hanging out in a part residential, part business street in the town”. We met with some professionals working there to begin with. To be honest it all seemed too big and unwieldy, where to begin? Rachael suggested that we use the “context weighting tool” on the Contextual Safeguarding network to help us define the context/focus. When we did this, we found that not being in education was a major issue for the young people. Alongside this, there was a lot of miscommunication between education workers and social care workers which we thought may be impacting negatively on all involved. In January 2021 we facilitated a group conference between them, and progress was made, the schools agreed to look at timetables to address cultural needs and to have training on unconscious bias, which was offered by an educational psychology student who had been sourced by one of the coordinators involved. The group also agreed for talks to be given to the young people on work experience. This was a challenging meeting, with conflict, but the coordinators were experienced and managed this appropriately.

In terms of working with the young people directly, we felt it was important not to step on the toes of the professionals already working with them, so we went out in the evening with the Early Help workers who already had relationships with the young people. Our aim was to find out what the young people wanted in terms of services, and to feel safe…then disaster...!

March 2020 onwards and –Covid Lockdown!!!!

We were lucky that we had a lot of support from Rachael, her team, and Kent Academy. We had regular meetings where we could reflect and sound out ideas safely, we were encouraged to try different things, as this was a learning experience for all of us. So, we continued our work in lockdown, although this was without doubt a challenge.  We had put leaflets out to residents prior to lockdown and had some feedback from them.  Asking about community safety as opposed to focusing on the young people does mean you get some feedback about traffic bumps and rubbish, but that is fine, it also gave us plenty of information around the young people and the worries of residents and local businesses. Importantly it gave us access to the ‘anti-social behaviour group’, a group of residents and business owners who met about their area. Luckily, we were able to meet with them virtually, and the police also attended this meeting. 

We contacted lots of other third sector agencies in the area, there were so many more than everyone thought.

We decided to have a big meeting, which had to be virtual, the young people had disappeared during Covid, but we had their views, so we thought it best to carry on. We held a large meeting, which included the Early Help Workers (who represented the young people’s views), the police, residents, the ‘anti-social behaviour group’, representatives from the local council, local business owners, landlords, and some third sector agencies e.g., Neighbourhood Watch. From the education meeting we thought this might be a challenging meeting too so we put in a lot of preparation with all attending to negate this, and we produced a clear agenda that was shared with everyone in advance. On reflection we felt this really helped the meeting flow, and nobody blamed the young people. The results were good, best of all the ‘anti-social behaviour group’ decided that they needed to change their name, they named themselves after the district we were working in to be more inclusive and accessible. The council agreed to add some lighting to key areas, increase area officers, extend the bin area, and create a new community Facebook page. The police agreed to run some safeguarding training for the re-named anti-social behaviour group (enabling the right calls to be made to police when reporting safeguarding issues rather than concerns about young people’s behaviours and giving more clarity for the police and a greater understanding of potential issues for the residents).  A local resident agreed to start an arts project around taking selfies, and this would be displayed locally. A local business owner put up £4.5 thousand to support youth initiatives in the area.

The feedback was very good, and some of the group said they felt inspired by the meeting.  We held a review and asked them to monitor the plan and I know that group still meets now monthly.

There was a drop in calls to the police about anti-social behaviour. We still wonder if things would have been even better if the meeting had been face-to-face, but we will never know.

April 2021- Sept 22

During the next months, we took on 3 more referrals. One in East Kent was similar in that it concerned a group of Roma residents where there was conflict in the community, and the dynamics that brought to the context. This also had some great outcomes, particularly by involving the local football team, who were keen to do work in the community and put on a bus to pick up young people and take them to the football ground at weekends for training. Residents asked for the local notice board to have translations in so that they could access and understand what was on offer. 

All through this we met regularly, had lots of support from Rachael and Kent Academy, and tried to think broadly about our approaches. We have presented our work in lots of places, including a Family Rights Group event and Kempe International Conference.  We have been contacted by many local authorities who want to find out more about this approach to working with communities.

Sept 22 – Dec 22

Where are we now?

Well good news, we have some funding via our Kent and Medway Violence Reduction Unit to carry out Contextual Community Conferences for the next 18 months (so watch this space for more evaluation). We have just finished the first one which related to a group of young people with the potential to become involved in ‘county lines’. This was interesting because residents’ groups had named and shamed involved young people and their families on social media. Again, the local football team was instrumental in providing support, opportunities, and time to the young people.

We have a lot of learning still to come but some things we think we have got right are:

  • Focusing on the context – not the young people
  • Asking people to be involved for their community (not to change the behaviour of young people)
  • Having two neutral facilitators to prepare people and run the meetings
  • Making good connections, e.g., thinking widely about who to involve and getting them on board by listening and making sure their views are heard in the main meeting
  • Not being afraid. It feels big and it feels scary but using Contextual Safeguarding tools, but you can focus in on specific areas/issues
  • Communities can make a difference


What we are still learning

We are working with the hardest to reach families who professional agencies cannot engage.  We have been using workers who already know the families to engage, and whilst this does work to a level, we would like to have even more involvement. For our next conference we are looking at another group of young women/girls in a district where there are concerns that they are with older men and are having frequent missing episodes. Our coordinators came up with the idea of holding an event on International Women’s Day in March involving local women (business owners, artists, residents) and local schools and Pupil Referral Units, to bring girls along for a celebratory event, e.g., pottery, bingo, nail art, beauty, sport, with everyone mixing. We want them to mix so that they visually know each other, some of the women are already talking about the possibility of setting up a mentoring scheme, and we hope to sign people up to a “safe space scheme” (where local businesses display a sign that young people recognise as indicating a place they can go if needing safety). We are hoping to listen to the young people at the same time and hear what they want, after which we will arrange a community conference. The learning arc continues…