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This blog was written by Dr Lauren Wroe (Research Fellow) and Dr Jenny Lloyd (Senior Research Fellow) in the Contextual Safeguarding team.

In the last decade, prompted by a number of high profile cases of child abuse specifically targeting adolescents, safeguarding systems in the UK have had to expand and broaden their understanding of, and response to, child harm. This has been a welcomed move; with the sector having to reflect on language, thresholds and interventions that have previously excluded, and in some cases criminalised, adolescents who experience abuse outside of their homes.

Contextual Safeguarding has played a key role in this journey. A review of nine cases of serious child harm between adolescent peers led to the development of a framework that would allow safeguarding systems that have traditionally focused on harm between parents/carers and their young children, to respond to the types of harms that adolescents face, and the contexts in which they happen. Contextual Safeguarding is being developed in collaboration with practitioners, and true to its contextual ethos, there is no model fidelity – with applications of the approach in different areas of the country, and in different services, being developed to meet the needs of those specific locations. This flexibility is important, as it allows services to the respond to the specific needs of young people in their local area, utilising and building on the practices and systems already in place.

However, attempts to safeguard adolescents from previously unrecognised harms – such as child sexual exploitation or child criminal exploitation – do not simply require an expansion of child protection systems to a broader age group, new locations, or different types of harm. It also requires an interrogation of the systems and attitudes that have allowed adolescents to be criminalised, blamed and made responsible for the harm they have experienced. Contextual safeguarding isn’t simply about expanding the remit of child protection systems, but about asking difficult questions about the systems that already exist. As such, we have been developing a Principles Framework (more publications will be developed throughout 2020) to underpin the Four Domains of Contextual Safeguarding, that reflect the values, ethics and practices we want to take from more traditional forms of child and family practice, and those we want to leave behind. This work has been prompted by conversations within our team about how ‘contextual safeguarding’, as a framework, is being applied in different areas of the country; the practices we love and the ones that have forced us to look at the Domains and ask: what are the values of this framework and can you achieve contextual safety for young people without adhering to certain ethical positions?

One set of practices in particular that have got us back to the drawing board are those that use surveillance methods and technologies, including accessing and sharing of data in expansive and new ways (i.e. social media) to monitor young people, particularly those young people who are deemed to be ‘at risk’ and those that do so without the knowledge or consent of young people and their parents. In our latest paper ‘Watching over or working with? Understanding social work innovation in response to extra-familial harm we look at two projects that are seeking to address a particular, or multiple, forms of EFH by bringing together multi-agency partnerships and innovating in both the target and the methods of interventions through community work, community engagement and community profiling. We examine the focus and rationale, the methods and the impact of the project against the analytic framework below

An analytical framework, developed from a focused literature review, that unpacks what relationships of surveillance and relationships of trust look like in responses to EFH

Applying the analytical framework to the case studies, we explore: the use of data, what data is collected, is consent gained, where is it stored and to whom is it shared; the participation of young people and families in setting the agenda, or contributing to evaluation and the ability of projects to challenge structural harms and oppressive structures, rather than reinforcing them, particularly around the lines of race, class and gender.

In the time it took for our article to be published, the world has changed significantly. Covid-19 poses new challenges for child welfare: with schools closed, families confined to their homes, forced unemployment and the closure of vital services. Social distancing troubles Contextual Safeguarding, it further reduces the capacity of child welfare services through staff shortages and social distancing restrictions whilst simultaneously increasing risk for some young people (see blog post here on CS and Covid-19). However, it also presents escalating questions around the use of remote surveillance and monitoring technologies in the name of child welfare. In the past few weeks we have heard of apps being used to deliver case work with young people with the option of GPS tracking functions, of parents being fined for not keeping their children indoors and guidance stating that the police can use force to return children back to their homes. Local authorities and police forces already use a range of surveillance and data-driven technologies to predict and respond to child harm. The pandemic is forcing us to reassess and reconfigure how we deliver services to children, young people and their families. It is a time of huge pressure on our services but also a time to make decisions about what we want the future of child welfare to look like.

Our framework is a small contribution to that task. In the coming months we will be evaluating projects and methods developed through the Contextual Safeguarding programme against this framework, and we invite you to do the same.

The article is freely available here:

   Author : Destiny Dejean

Published : 19th May 2020