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Contextual safeguarding

Our child protection system was originally built to respond to risks within the family home but as our knowledge of sexual and criminal exploitation, serious violence, bullying and radicalisation grows, it’s clear more sophisticated responses are required, particularly when dealing with adolescents.

A contextual approach to child protection work allows professionals to systematically identify the places and spaces that are important to children and young people and to assess any risks and harms with the aim of taking action to reduce these risks. Take a spate of intimidation and bullying of school-age children located around the poorly lit stairwell of a block of flats or the shopping precinct planters where police report knives are being hidden. In each scenario there are environmental factors that can be tackled to reduce risks e.g. with the installation of better lighting and/or CCTV in the stairwell.

The opportunities to pool insights and intelligence are virtually endless, colleagues in a local authority’s community safety, public realm or refuse teams will be aware of anti-social behaviour hotspots but in applying a safeguarding rather than a crime reduction lens, these areas can equally be viewed as vulnerability hotspots, where young people are potentially being exploited. A plan of action should follow with preventative and proactive steps. In the case of those planters in the precinct, the installation of lighting and CCTV, cutting back bushes, increased community safety officer patrols and the deployment of detached youth workers could all be actively considered if removal is not possible. Here the measure of success would be whether safety in the area increased overall, rather than focusing on changing the behaviour of an individual i.e. preventing a child or young person visiting the precinct, as the risk of violence would still exist within the community.

Child safeguarding partnerships have an important role in developing a wider understanding of these issues across a range of partners, from transport providers and housing associations to grassroots charities and community groups operating in the local area. Members of the wider community want to be involved in the solutions to local issues, so do local businesses and of course children and young people themselves. Engaging and meaningfully involving them in the co-production of information and training materials can be particularly powerful and youth and participation workers can play a crucial role here.

The local areas piloting contextual safeguarding approaches have adapted their case management systems, which are generally set up to record individual records. This is a difficult but not insurmountable challenge. Again, this helps to identify patterns, crime is rarely random and context is key. Geographical hotspots and other patterns e.g. a spike in incidents occurring at the end of school day, can become obvious via this collective endeavour and the pooling of all available intelligence.

In paying attention to children and young people’s environment and experiences, we can respond to risks now and in thinking more holistically we can head off future harm, which must be the ultimate goal.

Jenny Coles, ADCS President, 2020/21.

This article first appeared in CYP Now in February 2021

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