Fellowship workshop: Contextual Safeguarding

11th July 2018

Frontline fellow, Phoebe, heard about Dr Carlene Firmin MBE, who is the lead researcher developing Contextual Safeguarding, and wanted to learn more about this innovation in practice. She felt other fellows would be interested to hear about it too. Phoebe emailed Anna Hammond, the Frontline Fellowship Officer that leads on social work practice activity in the Fellowship team, to suggest Carlene as a speaker for a Fellowship event. Phoebe then worked with the Fellowship team to arrange the event; she led on communicating with Carlene about the content and structure of the workshop, while the Fellowship team facilitated the event by arranging the venue and refreshments.

As with all Fellowship events, the Fellowship team are keen for fellows to come forward with ideas and lead on the content, and we are here to facilitate these events. We find that the most impactful events are ones where fellows can take actions or make changes as a result of them. Events that are led by fellows are more effective and, as a result of Phoebe leading a fantastic workshop in London, we are now replicating it in Newcastle and Manchester to spread the learning even further.

If you’re a Frontline fellow and have an idea for an event, get in touch!


Contextual Safeguarding is being developed by Carlene Firmin and the University of Bedfordshire to develop new ways of addressing peer-to-peer abuse amongst young people. The current model of social work, as described in the Children Act, focuses on parenting capacity and risks posed to children within the family home. This can become less relevant as children become more independent and spend more time in the community.

Through Carlene’s work in the third sector, focusing on the impact of serious youth violence and gangs on women and girls, she became aware of the need to change current practice to keep young people safer. Carlene developed the model from reviewing cases on peer-to-peer abuse, where she identified that the community context was a key factor in young people’s safety; this includes not only their home, but their peer group, their school and their neighbourhood.

The Contextual Safeguarding model attempts to prevent, identify, assess and intervene with the social conditions of abuse. An example of this model in practice, given by Carlene, was a shopping centre in Sussex, where young people were being groomed for exploitation. The focus of the intervention was not only on the individual children and their families, but also on the space in which they were at risk and how to make it safer.

A critical aspect of the model is to build partnerships with adults in the wider community, who can influence the spaces considered to be high risk. Carlene described working with security guards in the shopping centre in Sussex and educating them on child sexual exploitation. The security guards were then able to disrupt the grooming process.

Another part of the model focuses on peer relationship mapping. Where current social work processes use genograms to depict children’s familial relationships, peer mapping depicts friendship groups and associations in the community. Carlene commented that in current social work practice there is limited joint working to tackle concerns around young people as a group. The focus on the individual means that abusive cycles are not disrupted; often when one vulnerable young person is safeguarded, another is found to fill their place. By encouraging a more holistic way of working in the community, the model aims to prevent local authorities from creating victim vacuums and instead tackle the source of risk.

This model moves away from current cultures of blame. Carlene spoke about how in practice blame can be directed at parents for not keeping their children safe and at young people for engaging in ‘risky choices and behaviours’, without bearing in mind the influence of the wider context. The effect of this can be that young people are not kept safe and the relationships that they have with their family members can be undermined, potentially placing them at further risk of harm.

One of the challenges in introducing the ideas of Contextual Safeguarding may be that current policy and legislation has not been developed with this different approach to information sharing in mind. Specifically, when aiming to address risks in community spaces, external partners need to be made aware of safeguarding issues, which can include sharing sensitive information about young people at risk. In addition, peer group mapping involves storing data on multiple children in a way that may not currently be legal.

Contextual Safeguarding is currently being piloted in the London Borough of Hackney through innovation funding and is undergoing an evaluation. The model has been referenced in up-to-date safeguarding guidance from the Department for Education (Keeping Children Safe in Education, 2018), which suggests that the ideas have gained traction amongst social work legislators.