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The ‘Contextual Safeguarding Across Borders’ Project

A few months ago we embarked on the ‘Contextual Safeguarding Across Borders’ (CSAB) project. CSAB is a two-year research project funded by Porticus Foundation exploring the feasibility and applicability of a Contextual Safeguarding to protecting adolescents from extra-familial harm (EFH) outside of the UK. This project has two strands of work looking at Europe and Australia respectively. This blog provides an update on the European strand of work.

We carried out a scoping review of the literature to help us start thinking about the relevance of Contextual Safeguarding in other European settings. The scoping asked these key questions:

  • What shared risks do adolescents face across European contexts?
  • Where are the divergences, and what can we learn from them?
  • What challenges do child protection systems and other professionals encounter in their attempts to create safety for adolescents?
  • Are there shared opportunities for improving outcomes for adolescents?

The CSAB project will focus on a single European country and a specific cohort of adolescents as a case study. We decided to focus on asylum-seeking adolescents in Germany, due to the high numbers of adolescent asylum-seeking young people entering Germany since 2015 and the extra-familial risks that can accompany asylum-seeking. In the UK, the Contextual Safeguarding programme has not yet engaged with asylum-seeking young people. This study gives us the opportunity to explore how Contextual Safeguarding can speak to the relationship between immigration status, age, vulnerability to EFH and the quality and efficacy of child welfare responses for this group of adolescents. We will do this by partnering with a service-delivery organisation in Germany and running a contextual safeguarding pilot project for six months.

In addition to scoping the literature, we recently convened a stakeholder group in a roundtable discussion to reflect on the findings of our scoping review, and share our plans for implementing a pilot Contextual Safeguarding intervention in Germany. The group brought together academics from Germany and other European countries, policymakers and NGOs with expertise on supporting asylum-seeking adolescents and/or adolescents impacted by extra-familial harm. They brought incredibly valuable insights from their own contexts, speaking about the ways in which asylum-seeking adolescents can be more vulnerable to EFH and sharing some examples of practice including: interventions that are focused on the wellbeing of asylum-seeking adolescents and promote their integration in the community through developing peer support networks; and local grassroot initiatives – such as community centres – that help to strengthen child protection processes (particularly in settings where statutory processes are lacking). The group also raised some important questions for us to think about going forward. For example, how the notion of ‘safeguarding’ translates into different practice and policy contexts and how it might be understood differently to the ‘child protection’. Or, how to capture contextual work that is already happening in settings that fall outside of children’s social care or other statutory agencies?

The group will meet again in April 2023, where we will share findings from the pilot project with them and we hope they can help us disseminate learning at a pan-European policy and practice level.

Shared challenges and opportunities for Contextual Safeguarding

At this point in the project, we have provisionally identified four key opportunities for mutual learning in relation to safeguarding adolescents from extra-familial harm from our scoping review and conversations with professionals across Europe.

1. Adolescent development and extra-familial harm

The scoping review revealed limited material specifically about the protection needs of adolescents in Europe. In addition to scoping the literature we spoke to professionals, including NGO workers and academics working in Germany, who explained that the German child welfare system can struggle to engage adolescents. These young people are sometimes referred to as ‘systemssprenger’ (system crasher), reflecting the barriers child protection systems can face in engaging them, and keeping them safe. Contextual Safeguarding can offer an approach to designing child protection systems that are sensitive to the specific dynamics and risks associated with adolescence, and there are opportunities to apply the approach to meet the safety needs of young people whose adolescence is complicated by the loss of family, displacement, and insecure immigration status.

2. Finding a place for extra-familial harm

Our scoping review identified that child protection systems across Europe are primarily concerned with the protection of children in the context of their families, with varying policy and practice frameworks governing this response. The emerging distinction between ‘intra’ and ‘extra’ familial harm appears to be unique to the UK. The (English language) literature that does pertain to adolescent risk in extra-familial contexts is primarily focused on child sexual abuse and exploitation, and child trafficking.

The scoping review identified several shared limitations in how these forms of harm are responded to. Including:

  • a lack of referral and identification mechanisms
  • a lack of adequate support and evidence-based interventions
  • an absence of specific protection responses to adolescents who are both victims of, and engage in, harmful activity (often resulting from their experience of exploitation or abuse)
  • a lack of clarity about who is responsible for adolescent exploitation and trafficking
  • the inadequate use of specialist care placements

These issues are compounded for asylum-seeking adolescents where support is undermined by immigration control priorities, adding additional barriers to safety. In lieu of effective child protection responses to abuse beyond family settings, adolescents can be criminalised for breaches of law or immigration policy, and support tends to cease at 18. Many of the same challenges have surfaced through our work supporting local authorities, schools, and voluntary organisations in the UK. This includes limited awareness of the specific needs of adolescents, a lack of robust systems for responding to extra-familial (as opposed to familial) harm, and the ongoing criminalisation or responsibilisation of adolescents who are exploited and trafficked.

In the Contextual Safeguarding team we have developed a holistic framework for understanding adolescent extra-familial risk, that acknowledges the shared drivers, methods, consequences, and contexts that often feature in adolescents’ experiences of harm beyond their families. The development of this framework supports an integrated understanding of adolescent harm and provides a foundation for developing an adolescent safeguarding strategy, and policy and practice responses that address the contextual drivers of adolescent risk. This framework could support practice in European contexts where agencies face similar barriers to adequately identifying and addressing adolescent harm in extra-familial contexts.


The exploitation wheel. A holistic framework for understanding extra-familial risk in adolescence (Firmin, Wroe and Lloyd, 2019)

3. Contexts as sources of safety and sources of hostility

Our scoping review also indicates that asylum-seeking adolescents may be particularly vulnerable to EFH, and that there are specific aggravating factors – namely the absence of suitable care provision and the lack of integration measures, combined with a hostile policy environment – that can create additional contextual risks.

We feel there may be mutual learning opportunities in Germany and in Europe to create safety in the contexts where young people are harmed. While international policy documents do acknowledge risks and protective factors present within the different contexts of young people’s lives, child protection interventions in many European countries mainly target parents and individual adolescents. We found little discussion on the need for interventions to specifically target the contexts in which the harm is happening. Contextual Safeguarding can offer a framework to support our understanding of how features of the wider environment intersect with EFH, and offers some routes for addressing contextual risks – for example, by supporting protective peer relationships or by making places in the community safer.

We identified some, but limited, examples of interventions into contexts. In Germany, the use of volunteer guardianship services has been highlighted as beneficial to supporting asylum-seeking adolescents in their everyday lives, and developing supportive and trusting relationships with them; however, the literature notes that these services need to be adequately resourced, and complementary to professional guardianships.[1] Mentoring programmes, as trialled for instance in Sweden[2] or Austria[3], can also support young people with integration and transition to adulthood – but remain limited to children with residence status.

We see potential overlaps with the Contextual Safeguarding approach and the social pedagogical or ecological models that inform some European child protections systems (including Germany). All these approaches highlight the importance of understanding social environments to understand young people’s individual behaviours and experiences of harm and safety.

4. Developing creative partnerships

Finally, our scoping suggests a pressing need for partnerships when it comes to addressing EFH in adolescence. This is particularly relevant to asylum-seeking adolescents due to the wide range of agencies and organisations involved in safeguarding this group of young people. As our scoping indicates, responses to extra-familial harm are fragmented across different statutory agencies, non-governmental and volunteer organisations. The UK faces a similar challenge, where competing legislation and practice frameworks can promote both the criminalisation and safeguarding of adolescents who are harmed in contexts beyond their families, and this can create ambiguity about which agencies take the lead on issues such as youth violence and exploitation.

In Europe, civil society organisations (including larger NGOs and community organisations) tend to lead on service delivery, particularly in offering child protection services to young people affected by trafficking. Illustratively, a significant proportion of the European research relating to adolescent extra-familial risk is funded by NGOs and private organisations.

In Germany, civil-society organisations appear to be key partners for public authorities, providing a wide range of services such as legal guardianship, language courses or vocational training. The rise in volunteering for refugees and unaccompanied minors has even been described by some authors as a new social movement in Germany.[4] However, this has also been met with concern regarding the quality of service provision and has led municipalities to develop new governance tools that aim to strengthen cooperation between professional social workers and volunteers.[5] Municipalities are also experimenting with new forms of participatory governance providing opportunities for young refugees to co-design services.[6] Contextual Safeguarding could be used as a framework to bridge the various forms of support provided to asylum-seeking adolescents – including more ‘informal’ civil society initiatives. What would partnerships between statutory agencies and voluntary and community organisations look like? Given the importance of civil-society organisations in the German child protection system, the German context has no doubt much learning to offer to Contextual Safeguarding about partnership working.

Next steps

We are currently in the process of partnering with a service delivery organisation in Germany to run a pilot intervention to explore and support the adolescents they engage to be safer in extra-familial contexts. The pilot will run from June to November 2022. It will be supported and tracked by the research team. We hope that learning will inform policy makers and professionals in Germany, and the development of an international framework for Contextual Safeguarding in contexts beyond the UK.

If you would like to find out more or if you are interested in joining the European stakeholder group, please contact the project lead Dr Lauren Wroe:

Delphine Peace and Lauren Wroe

[1] D’Addato, A. (2017). Let Children be Children: Lessons from the Field on the Protection and Integration of Refugee and Migrant Children in Europe. Eurochild and SOS Children’s Villages International;

[2] Ibid.

[3] Raithelhuber, E. (2021). ‘If we want, they help us in any way’: how ‘unaccompanied refugee minors’ experience mentoring relationships. European Journal of Social Work, 24(2), 251-266.

[4]Schiffauer (2017) cited in Aflaki, I. N., & Freise, M. (2021). Challenging the welfare system and forcing policy innovation? unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Sweden and Germany. Journal of Refugee Studies, 34(1), 264-284.

[5] Sauer & Vey (2017) cited in Aflaki and Freise (2019)

[6] Aflaki & Freise (2019)