Bio: Jo Walker is a researcher in the Contextual Safeguarding team at Durham University. She led Stage 3 of the Beyond Referrals project which explored how safety is created in and around youth facing organisations in relation to extra-familial harm. She is currently working on two projects: the Building Safety project focusing on inequalities in experiences of, and responses to, extra-familial harm in adolescence and the Planning for Safety project focusing on the features, feasibility and impacts child protection pathways focused on significant risks/harms beyond families.
Extra-familial harm (EFH) has been an increasing issue of concern in the UK over the last decade (Firmin 2020,; Radford et al. 2011). Young people experience EFH in contexts beyond their homes, such as community places, schools, and within their peer groups. Since 2017, the Contextual Safeguarding team have been working with Children’s Social Care teams and schools to develop and inform systems, processes, and practices that can respond to this harm.
Within these sectors some of the key issues practitioners and school staff are grappling with are:
- How can we engage young people at risk of EFH and maintain relationships with them?
- What are the alternatives to criminal, punitive, zero-tolerance and exclusion responses to young people offending or displaying harmful behaviour in the context of the EFH they are experiencing?
- How do we move beyond individual workers promoting welfare-led practice responses in order to create organisational or sector cultures that lead with and prioritise welfare approaches?
- How do we understand harm in context and create responses that target these contexts?
- How do we engage with structural factors (such as racism and poverty) in order to create safety?
To build on the work in Children’s Social Care teams and schools, the Contextual Safeguarding team have developed work in another sector - the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS). Over the last two years, we have been working with youth-facing VCS organisations to explore how they create safety, and respond to EFH, in and around their provision. Youth-facing VCS organisations, like schools, are universal settings where young people spend time outside of the home. They hold a safeguarding place alongside schools and Children’s Social Care and feed into wider safeguarding systems.
What we have learnt about youth-facing VCS organisations
Through an exploratory study with three VCS organisations (one sports-facing, one generic open access youth club, and one faith-based youth provision) the research explored how these organisations created safety, and responded to EFH, in and around their provision.
For the study, research data was gathered in all three youth settings through observations, interviews, and focus groups, as well as through a review of safeguarding policies and procedures, specifically those related toEFH. These research activities helped us to understand the barriers and levers for youth settings knowing about and addressing EFH in their settings.
Following the data collection, three sector-specific focus groups and a research advisory group helped sense-check the transferability of findings. The findings were converted into a self- assessment resource for the sector - the Towards Safety toolkit. The figure below (Figure 1) is the Towards Safety Wheel from the toolkit and outlines the key factors that create safety in youth settings.
The research identified four thematic areas which supported safety in VCS organisation: Cultural Context, Structures and Systems, Identification, and Response and Intervention. Under each theme a number of key factors were identified that support safety. Taken together, the four thematic areas also support VCS organisations to act preventively and provide young people with a safe space/s to spend their time.
Figure one: the Towards Safety Wheel
The cultural context of the organisations was the most significant thematic area identified for creating safety for young people affected by EFH. The culture of the organisation shaped and informed the three other thematic areas. The cultural context of the youth organisations refers to the social norms that exist within the organisation and amongst staff and young people that work to promote safety, as well as those that are harmful and act to undermine safety. Social norms which undermined safety might include, for example, racist, sexist, ableist or homophobic attitudes and actions amongst staff, young people, parents/carers or the wider community.
The research found that young people’s safety was promoted when organisations provided open and inclusive spaces for young people to spend their time and where young people’s participation was centred, creating opportunities for them to collectively engage in critical reflection/discussion about issues that might impact their safety, and their experience of the setting. For example, youth settings that had an ethos which enabled safety worked with young people to design spaces in the organisation and ensured agendas and activities were led by young people. Other factors helping to create safety included an openness to discuss issues such as anti-racism, inequalities, politics, human rights etc. and the ability, knowledge, and confidence of staff to understand, challenge and respond to the ways in which inequalities shape young people’s experiences, including their experiences of harm and safety.
The organisation’s commitment and ability to advocate on behalf of young people and to take a strengths-based approach towards working with young people and the community was also found to create safety for young people.
Structures and Systems
The ability of youth settings to have flexible and proportionate safeguarding systems which reflect the organisation’s requirements and that could respond to emerging concerns facing young people nationally and in the community was found to enable safety for young people engaged in the setting. Structures and systems that were created in collaboration with young people in the setting were also found to be the most effective means of creating safety in the organisation. For example, the creation of a set of ground rules co-produced with young people that outlined what is expected and the ways of working in the organisation supported the creation of safe spaces.
The third thematic area identified by the research was identification. This relates to the ability of staff (including volunteers and young leaders) to identify EFH and the conditions that enable harm to occur. A key factor in relation to identification of EFH was the ability of youth organisations to build relationships of trust with young people. A core element within these relationships was the creation of opportunities to maximise young people’s choice and voice with an aim at levelling power within the relationship. Also, the ability of youth workers, staff and volunteers to be aware of, and sensitive to, power dynamics within different relationships and the barriers to forming relationships for young people enabled the organisation to address these factors and build relationships of trust. For example, in an organisation that had a more formal hierarchy and a faith-based purpose, relationships were formed when the organisation and staff members identify and acknowledge how this structure may produce barriers to the formation of relationships of trust with young people. The organisation worked to promote young people’s participation where possible within these structures, such as letting young people decide on the activity for the session and worked to ensure that each young person had a key worker who they would meet outside of sessions to engage in “getting to know each other” activities. In these sessions young people and workers could talk about things outside of the organisation’s faith agenda.
The final thematic area identified by the research was response and intervention. This refers to the availability, use, and effectiveness of responses and interventions following incidents of EFH. Organisational responses to EFH that promoted safety for young people were rooted in welfare approaches; approaches that are underpinned by the principle that children’s welfare is paramount (Children Act 1989; UNCRC 1992). Responses which promoted the safety of young people were guided by restorative and relational principles and de-escalation practices. For example, in one organisation a young person told a youth worker that they were going to carry a knife for their protection. In response to this information, the youth worker provided a space for the young person to discuss what reasons they felt they need to carry a knife, and what steps can be taken to make their situation safer. This intervention created increased safety for the young person.
The role of youth organisations in safeguarding practices
The features of the youth work organisations that were identified as enabling safety for young people in and around the settings aligned with many goals of the Contextual Safeguarding framework. These features, such as: prioritising and grounding the work in a child welfare and rights-based approach; working relationally and collaboratively with young people; and engaging with the wider structures of harm such as racism and poverty, are often the very factors that schools and Children’s Social Care teams can struggle to employ and embed in their practice systems and culture. Furthermore, youth organisations often operate or have reach into places that young people spend their time. As such, VCS youth-facing organisations have the potential to hold a distinctive role in wider safeguarding practices and creating safety for young people from EFH.
The importance of these organisations and the youth sector within this space is demonstrated in findings from a recent parliamentary inquiry which indicates a link between rising cases of EFH and significant funding cuts to youth work (APPG 2018). The ability of youth work and VCS organisations to create safer communities and spaces beyond the home for young people has, however, been limited by a decade of policy decisions and austerity measures.
Austerity measures over the last decade have meant dramatic funding cuts to youth work. In England, for example, austerity measures have meant a 45% diminution of spending on youth work services resulting in hundreds of youth clubs being closed and thousands of youth work jobs being lost. This contrasts to a 14 percent cut to social care spending (Hastings et al. 2013; APPG 2018). The consequences of this have been the fragmentation and de-professionalisation of the sector (Hastings et al. 2013; APPG, 2018). The identity of youth work is therefore at risk. As is recognition and utilisation of youth work in creating safety for young people at risk of EFH.
In England, policy and funding initiatives that have ‘offered’ youth work a role in safeguarding young people from EFH have been shaped by discourses that use deficit models for addressing needs, and place responsibility on young people for their exclusion and harm (King 2016; Ord and Davies 2022). These agendas prioritise short-term replicable programmes that centre on behaviour management and social conformity (Cann et al. 2006; Jeffs & Smith 2008; O’Mahony, 2009; Ord and Davies 2022). This results in youth work having to work to models that rarely align with their core values. It has also created practice model for youth work that do not conceptualise the potential of youth work in safeguarding, and fails to position youth work as a vehicle for social change.
As we increasingly recognise EFH as a safeguarding matter, and work to promote the welfare of young people experiencing these forms of harm, it is crucial that we defend and advocate on behalf of youth work and VCS sector, highlighting the valuable role it plays. The need to look to the VCS sector for guidance and learning, and to work with them as key and essential partners in creating safety in extra-familial contexts is becoming increasingly apparent as we progress our work. The value this sector can bring to responding to EFH cannot be underestimated, especially in light of significant challenges other sectors are facing when trying to work in an ecological, contextual and welfare-led way (Firmin and Lloyd 2022).
APPG. (2018) APPG on youth affairs: Youth work inquiry. Recommendations and summary. Leicester: NYA.
Cann, J., Falshaw, L., Nugent, F. and Friendship, C. (2006) ‘Understanding What Works: Accredited Cognitive Skills Programmes for Adult Men and Young Offenders’, Youth Justice, 5 (3), pp.165-179.
Firmin, C., 2020. Contextual safeguarding and child protection: Rewriting the rules. Routledge.
Firmin, Carlene and Lloyd, Jenny (2022) 'Green Lights and Red Flags: The (Im)Possibilities of Contextual Safeguarding Responses to Extra-Familial Harm in the UK.', Social Sciences, 11 (7). p. 303
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Radford, L., Corral, S., Bradley, C., Fisher, H., Bassett, C., Howat, N. and Collishaw, S., 2011. Child abuse and neglect in the UK today.