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This blog was written by Dr Lauren Wroe, Research Fellow in the Contextual Safeguarding programme.

Contextual Safeguarding was developed in response to traditional safeguarding systems that were struggling to keep adolescents safe when they were at risk of, or had experienced, harm outside of their family homes. Contextual Safeguarding has been mirrored on traditional child protection systems, with design changes made at assessment, planning and intervention stages that mirror those of traditional child protection interventions. For example, the use of ‘context conferences’ alongside or in lieu of ‘child protection conferences’. However, Contextual Safeguarding is not simply a technical solution to a systems problem. Contextual Safeguarding is premised on the idea that traditional child protection systems, and the legislative frameworks that govern them, are not only ill-designed to address extra-familial harm in adolescence, but that the system often struggles to understand and engage with adolescent behaviour and the social conditions of adolescent harm. This requires not only systems changes, but changes in the way we understand young people’s behaviour and how we engage with harm – moving us from individual to contextual and social understandings of behaviour and abuse. It is therefore not only a technical question, but a conceptual and ethical one.

The idea of engaging with the social conditions of harm is aligned with some important ethical frameworks that scaffold social work in the UK and internationally. For example, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) global definition of social work states:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development…social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing (IFSW, 2014).

Similarly the British Association of Social Workers code of ethics reminds us:

Human rights and social justice serve as the motivation and justification for social work action. In solidarity with those who are dis-advantaged, the profession strives to alleviate poverty and to work with vulnerable and oppressed people in order to promote social inclusion. (BASW, no date).

For many of us, this is a social work we strive to practice but that is increasingly challenging within current service arrangements and budget restrictions. Many have flagged where child protection practice has begun to stray from these ethical codes, and remind us that we should strive to ensure our practice is child-centred (see Munro’s review of child protection), grounded in trusted relationships (see Trowler’s ‘Clear Blue Waters’), feminist (see the work of Lena Dominelli and Featherstone, White, Morris and Gupta), anti-oppressive (see Jan Fook), anti-discriminatory (see Sarah Banks) and anti-racist (see Suryia Nayak). And a number of practice responses have been designed to guide child protection work back in line with social work ethics: ‘restorative practice’, ‘signs of safety’, ‘trusted relationships’ and the ‘social model’ being a few examples.

Contextual Safeguarding has not only sought to model itself (initially at least) on traditional child protection practices but to learn from decades of debates in the profession about what works to keep young people safe, and what doesn’t. And crucially, to position itself within the same ethical codes of practice that the many in the profession have sought to align us with, to strengthen and to defend. Again, the question ‘what works’ is not simply a technical question; but one of values and ethics.

Following a team away day in summer 2019 where we discussed the major ethical debates in traditional child and family social work practice, and our learning from colleagues in the International Centre about participation with children and families (see the work of Camille Warrington at the International Centre Researching Child Sexual Exploitation Violence and Trafficking), the Contextual Safeguarding team landed on five ethical principles that should underpin Contextual Safeguarding and sit alongside the Contextual Safeguarding domains. First, here’s a recap of the domains:

Four Domains of Contextual Safeguarding

And now to our principles:

Principles of Contextual Safeguarding

  1. Collaborative: Collaborating with professionals, children and young people, families and communities to inform decisions about safety.
  2. Ecological: Considering the links between the spaces where young people experience harm and how these are shaped by inequalities.
  3. Rights-based: Rooted in children’s and human rights.
  4. Strengths-based: Building on the strengths of individuals and communities to achieve change.
  5. Evidence-informed: Producing research that is grounded in the reality of how life happens. Proposing solutions informed by lived experience.


Diagram One: Contextual Safeguarding Principles


We are constantly developing the ideas and practices that underpin Contextual Safeguarding and are currently preparing a Contextual Safeguarding book and a second Contextual Safeguarding briefing where we will expand on the value-base of Contextual Safeguarding and what this looks like in practice. As our work gains ground and legislative recognition (see changes in Working Together 2018) it is crucial that we remain reflective and seek to engage the views and leadership of those our social welfare and protection systems are ostensibly there to support. Contextual Safeguarding is committed to learning the lessons from, as well as challenging, traditional child and family social work practice and we present these five principles as our commitment to ethical practice. Watch this space.

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Author : Jenny Lloyd

Published : 7th May 2020