The Contextual Safeguarding Framework and social work methods: a case study

Table of Contents:

As has been noted already, relationships sit at the heart of social work practice, as well as being central to Contextual Safeguarding. Revived interest in

‘relationship-based’ social work from the 1990’s onwards (Ruch, 2005; Trevithick, 2003) is one such example of this. While to some extent all social work practice involves human interaction and so is in a sense relational. Ruch describes the idea of relationship-based practice as one in which:

emphasis (is) placed on the professional relationship as the medium through which the practitioner can engage with the complexity of an individual’s internal and external worlds and intervene. The practitioner-client relationship is recognized to be an important source of information for the practitioner to understand how best to help, and simultaneously this relationship is the means by which any help or intervention is offered.

(Ruch, 2005:113)

Through this characterisation Ruch helpfully articulates how relationships enable practice: they act as a route to understanding the contexts/situations/ worlds a person is navigating - and also provide a gateway to finding solutions. Emphasising such an approach pushes against procedure or process-driven support, which neglects the opportunities to identify solutions through relationships rather than ‘interventions’ or doesn’t recognise the intervening power of a relationship itself.

The power of relationships, especially ones between young people and trusted adults, somewhat dominated the 2018 policy response to serious youth violence (Lewing, et al., 2018). The Home Office set up the ‘Trusted Relationships’ fund in response to concerns about serious youth violence and criminal exploitation (Home Office, 2018). More generally, within local authority children’s services young people are allocated a ‘lead professional or practitioner’ who they trust and who can advocate on their behalf (East Riding Yorkishire Council, 2019; London Borough of Merton, 2019; Tameside Metropolitan Borough, 2019). This all makes sense. Professionals, families, and young people have all identified that relationships matter in response to extra-familial harm (Cossar, et al., 2013; Gilligan, 2016; Lefevre, et al., 2017; PACE, 2020; Scott & McNeish, 2017; Turner, et al., 2019)

It has been interesting to see how this position has sometimes been interpreted by professionals in local areas who are trying to develop a Contextual Safeguarding approach. For some, they have stated that relationships, and not contexts, are what matter - as if the two are mutually exclusive. Practitioners have informed me that they don't have the skills to engage with the stakeholders who can effect change in a local park or school as they have been trained to build relationships with parents and young people (and not other people).

And yet what testing of Contextual Safeguarding has demonstrated is that relationships are key to increasing safety for a young person in community, school and peer contexts as well as in families. Firstly, as Ruch’s presentation of relational practice suggests, part of the work to do when safeguarding young people is to support them by understanding their world. Furthermore, a fundamental challenge to full implementation of the approach has been lack of relationships between social workers and the partners required to practise in accordance with Domain 3 of the Contextual Safeguarding Framework: be it case work preventing relationships with peer groups, or perceived restrictions of a social work mandate scuppering relationships with housing departments. I have been at pains to remind practitioners that if they have the skills to speak with parents, then they also have the skills to speak with teachers, street cleaners, and store managers. These conversations may be occurring outside of the comfort zone of a family context but they are all about engagement and furthermore are the start of relationships that form around a shared desire to safeguard the welfare of children. They also hark back to relationships formed during eras of community-based social care - on this occasion building those community relationships to address contemporary challenges faced by young people and families.

The ability of a social worker to form relationships with a range of agen- cies/individuals will in turn inform their ability to advocate on behalf of children and families - and broker the partnerships needed to increase contextual safety. This type of work is relevant to operational models that build a ‘team around the family’, ‘team around the school’, or ‘team around the professional' in a bid to safeguard a child. There seems to be no reason why the people in that team can’t reach beyond healthcare practitioners, social workers, and police officers to also include residents, other parents, peers, youth workers, shopkeepers, and so on. And who is to say you couldn’t have a ‘team around a professional’ who is supporting a peer group, or who is coordinating the plan to increase safety on a high street?

Drawing on thinking by Featherstone, et al. (2018) we have an opportunity to take this thinking one step further. They argue for an approach to relationship(s)-based practice in which we recognise the value of connection between young people, families, and the wider communities in which they are situated as opposed to solely focusing on the relationship between professionals and families. They note that:

This is a more porous approach that encourages an understanding of the surrounding contexts and recognises the multitude of relationships (helpful and unhelpful) in children's lives ... we are proposing that it is critical to move beyond the individual relationship (which is often narrowly focused on particular household members and usually gendered). Instead we want to explore the opportunities to recognise children within their communities and to work productively and collaboratively with a number of networks.

(Featherstone, et al., 2018:101)

In a similar vein Hilary Cottam also drew attention to the value of community networks as part of her call to ‘remake relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state’. In her book ‘Radical Help’ (2018) she documents a project called Loops in which various members of local communities and businesses offered young people experiences - working in hotels, theatres, and so on. Using reflective activities throughout this process fostered bonds between young people and different adults in their communities - relationships with the potential to see them through. Cottarn recounted being inspired to develop the project when watching short films young people had made about what a ‘good adolescence’ might be like. She says:

In every film young people connected themselves to the wider world. Yet our public services emphasise youth-only activities and so they break the natural links through which young people learn and flourish. Young people were showing us a bringing down of the walls and we needed to make that happen.

(Cottarn, 2018:93)

It is worth noting that the project Cottarn went on to develop ran into roadblocks as fears emerged about the relationships forged between young people and wider community members - and the limited structural parameters around them that traditional ‘interventions’ required. And yet in both their works Cottarn and Featherstone et al. reference similar successful efforts in the US where community-driven, relationships-based interventions have proved fruitful for safeguarding the welfare of young people, their families, and residents more broadly. The idea that relationship-based social work or ‘team around’ frameworks must be limited to families is one grounded in the perceived parameters of child protection that need not be there. Once those parameters are broadened, the opportunities for social workers to effect change beyond, as well as within, families, by working alongside them, are plentiful.

Similar role, broader remit

Within a Contextual Safeguarding system therefore, the social work role remains one of supporting families, coordinating plans which increase the safety and welfare of children, and ensuring that wherever possible children can remain (safely) with their families and communities. More broadly it aligns to the principles, values, and ethics of social work practice endorsed by the sector itself.

In her reflections on the social justice of social work in 2016 Jane Fenton argued that there was a large task to turn an awareness of structural inequality into a practical reality within social work - something that she sought to achieve in her book and I have set out to realise in this chapter. And yet, it would be remiss of me to suggest that when applying Contextual Safeguarding all is business as usual. The remit is broader, but the role is similar. Despite this alignment, to implement the Contextual Safeguarding Framework social workers must broaden their field of vision and (re)-engage with the environments in which families raise their children and those children build independence. When it comes to extra-familial harm, this has led to the practices that are relatively novel to 21st-century social care - such as neighbourhood observations, peer-mapping, and brokering actions with town planning. By advocating to safeguard children, brokering the relationships to achieve this, and coordinating plans to bring about social change social workers act alongside families who are impacted by extra- familial abuse, rather than in judgement of them and their inability to create safety beyond their front doors. To do so (re)locates social work in the business of social justice; and conceptually broadens the parameters of child protection systems in which social workers operate.

Specific techniques have been required to realise this ambition, and demonstrate the alignment of Contextual Safeguarding with existing social worker practices. In the next chapter I will outline how approaches such as mirroring systems and co-creation have supported our position that the Contextual Safeguarding Framework extends, but does not replace, existing social work practice. By detailing how these methodologies have assisted us to date, I will also highlight the risks and challenges that have come with this approach - how they have been managed so far and how they may change in the future. Recognising and understanding these tensions is critical for ensuring that the continued application and development of Contextual Safeguarding can be held within social care systems - without either compromising each other’s intention.


  • 1 Having previously focused on two approaches - family support and child protection (Gilbert, 1997).
  • 2 A loss of such relationships has not been unique to social workers. As noted in chapter 5, youth workers have also informed us of the impact that case management approaches have had on their partnerships (Fritz et al. 2016).
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