A lens of child welfare and child protection

A number of systems have for a long time considered places, locations, and contexts as part of their every-day work. As noted in Part 1, policing and community safety services have been informed by theories of situational crime prevention in the knowledge that it is often easier to predict the location where a crime is going to occur than the person who is going to commit it. It was therefore unsurprising that when reviewing cases and in the early days of local site work, some of the most contextual work Jenny, George, and 1 encountered was driven by those working in crime reduction.

In one case I reviewed, for example, a young woman, Lana, had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend who was also under the age of 16. During their investigations the police interviewed a number of their friends - in the knowledge that they were more likely to know what had been happening in the weeks prior to the murder, than either of their parents. They also spoke to shopkeepers and other business owners who worked on the high street where this group of young people used to hang out. This route of inquiry worked. Lana had disclosed to her friends in school as the abuse in her relationship escalated. Her peers in the community had also witnessed Lana being assaulted - not just by her ex-boyfriend but by other young men in the local area. Local shopkeepers were aware of how vulnerable she was - and she had spoken to one of them about feeling afraid. Lana’s extra- familial community, and networks, was where she had sought advice in the days before her death. Engaging in these contexts was the route to understanding what had happened. They were also the contexts in which risks persisted after the murder. And this was a problem. As despite being a target for police investigations, Lana’s peers and the high street where she had hung out were not subject to any welfare-based assessment. A number of her peers were physically assaulted by other young people after talking to the police - their welfare had not been considered by safeguarding partners. The risk, in many respects, was viewed as located in the young person who lost her life and the young person who took it - and not the contexts associated to that violence. As such, outside of the police investigation, a welfare response to these concerns was notable only by their absence.

In a similar vein most localities that were worked with had a ‘locations’ meeting, or community safety panels, who sat and identified locations in which anti-social behaviour or crime was a concern. These meetings were focused on crime reduction or crime prevention in local areas, and rarely fed into child welfare focused meetings on child sexual exploitation or serious youth violence. Even on occasions where there was some join-up between the two structures they didn’t share the same tone, culture, and measures of success. In one meeting, young people were being described as problematic, anti-social, and a risk to the local community; in another meeting they were described as experiencing adversities, vulnerable, and at risk in their local community. Work done to address community concerns of anti-social behaviour were not connected to the individual welfare-based or social work plans for the same young people who were vulnerable in those communities. It reminded me of a case I had reviewed where a group of young men raped a young woman on a stairwell. In the weeks before the rape most of those young men had been served with behaviour notices due to anti-social behaviour - which did little to address their escalating and concerning behaviour. The vulnerability of the young man who ultimately led the assault, his experiences of violence on the streets, and the drivers for him being missing from home most nights were not being tackled by any welfare-based agency - or the influence he had on the rest of his peers who committed offences only when in his company.

It is also important to consider what child protection systems offer in a response to vulnerable children, families, and communities. A number of families will be supported by social workers who are not under a police investigation. A crime does not have to have been committed for social workers to be concerned about the welfare of children and families. Support to increase safety within a family setting may involve direct work with parents and/or with young people. It may also involve support from health, housing, or community organisations - amongst others: support which is brokered or coordinated by social workers on behalf of the families they are supporting.

When I suggest that in a Contextual Safeguarding approach professionals respond to extra-familial harm through the lens of child protection and child welfare, I do so with this reading of social work in mind. It would be remiss of me to suggest that this is always the approach taken in social work and within child protections systems more generally (a matter raised in chapter 3 and to be explored further in Parts 3 and 4 of this book). There has been a mounting critique of individualised approaches to child protection in recent decades. In many countries, including England, social work has been viewed as increasingly punitive: based on intervention rather than support, adversarial to families and operating a ‘case work’ approach which reduces engagement with the wider communities of which families are a part (Featherstone, et al., 2018; Fenton, 2016; Ferguson & Woodward, 2009; Gilbert, et al., 2011; Parton, 2014)

In many respects Contextual Safeguarding, as will be discussed throughout this book, re-centres community, support, and advocacy into child protection and social work practices. Case review and local site work both indicated the importance of holding responses to extra-familial harm within child protection and child welfare systems - and the potential risks of seeing contextual work as solely a community safety matter. If we agree that the sexual and criminal exploitation of children, weapon-enabled crime, and serious violence, and other matters that threaten young people’s lives and welfare are forms of abuse then we require a child protection response. We need such a response to not only come into force when a crime has been committed and a child has been harmed. We need to be able to identify contexts, situations, and relationships in which young people are at increased vulnerability to ham and seek to build safety or increased support within those contexts.

This is not to say the Contextual Safeguarding approaches would not feature contributions from community safety and policing professionals. There is a place for enforcement and crime reduction work within a safeguarding agenda - but it cannot be seen as the lead or sole route for addressing safeguarding issues in extra-familial settings, for all the reasons outlined above. In some cases a peer group spending time and drinking in a local park where other young people have been groomed into drug dealing may need support from detached youth workers. In other cases, if agencies know who has been grooming young people then enforcement against those individuals might also happen. And in other cases, design work in the park to increase its use for positive activities, and involving this group of young people in designing those activities, might be all that is needed to safeguard their welfare. Or all of the above might be required. Through this work professionals might identify that some of those young people also have parents in need of support, or that they are experiencing other difficulties at home - but this may not be the case for all the young people in question. When the issue in the park is seen as a concern for community safety agencies alone, there is the risk that the dispersal of those young people, the serving of civil orders for anti-social behaviour, and/or their criminalisation for public order offences are seen as the route to restoring safety in the park. The difficulty in such an approach is that: it doesn’t address the causes of the behaviour in the first place; it doesn't work with, or respond to, the group dynamics and the potential strengths that might exist within it; it fails to see young people as part of the local community who should be able to safely use the park; and it risks isolating young people even further from services and pushing them closer to those who can groom them into criminal activity because they have little to lose anyway.

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