Learn about contextual safeguarding

Contextual Safeguarding has changed the response of child protection systems to children at risk of significant harm in extra-familial settings and relationships.

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Academic Insights

Last week (5 November 2020), the probation inspectorate published another in its new series of specially commissioned research papers aimed at exploring the evidence base underpinning probation practice. Authored by Dr Carlene Firmin (@carlenefirmin), Principal Research Fellow at the University of Bedfordshire, this paper focuses on contextual safeguarding.

What is contextual safeguarding?

During the period of adolescent development children are increasingly exposed to ‘extra-familial’ harm. Harm caused through sexual and criminal exploitation, abuse in their own romantic, same-age relationships, sexual harassment and abuse from peers or adults unconnected to their families, and weapon-enabled and street-based violence are more commonly associated with adolescence than with earlier childhood; and are all largely instigated by, or occur in relationships, with people beyond a child’s parents/carers.

Given their extra-familial nature, these forms of harm also largely occur in extra-familial contexts, including: parks, schools, high streets and shopping centres, youth clubs, fast food outlets, transport hubs and online social media platforms. To varying degrees, these are contexts that children socialise in without parental supervision – and parents have little influence over the nature of these contexts, or the relationships children form within them.

When harm occurs beyond family homes and relationships, children are also more readily identified as both being victimised and victimising others. Overlaps between victims/perpetrators often feature when children display harmful, violent and sometimes criminal acts to survive/navigate extra-familial contexts in which they have been abused. For example, taking a peer to a ‘party’ where they will be sexually assaulted and exploited to avoid that same experience happening to them; being trafficked to distribute drugs in the homes of vulnerable adults under the threat of violence; or carrying a knife on the journey to school to avoid having their phone stolen for a third time.

Context, therefore, is important for how we understand children’s experiences of extra-familial harm. Extra-familial contexts characterise:

  1. where the harm occurs;
  2. where protective and harmful relationships form;
  3. the limitations of parenting as a source of protection; and
  4. a blurring of the lines between victimisation and perpetration.

This Academic Insights paper focuses on how Contextual Safeguarding has developed as an approach to recognising, and working with, these contextual dynamics of extra-familial harm – and the challenges the approach was intended to resolve. It summarises the Contextual Safeguarding framework and common features that have emerged when professionals apply it to their practice.

In particular, it considers how staff working in a youth justice context can incorporate a Contextual Safeguarding approach into their work with children who are affected by extra-familial harm – and how this aligns to current policy and practice frameworks.

By taking a ‘Contextual Safeguarding’ approach to address extra-familial harm, practitioners make efforts to build safety in the contexts and relationships where that harm has occurred – in addition to supporting the children affected. Following a review of nine cases in which children, under the age of 16, were sexually assaulted or killed by other children, under the age of 18. In these cases, two issues were evident:

  1. the practitioners involved did not have a contextual understanding of extra-familial harm – and so focused solely on the children involved; and
  2. practitioners did not have access to, or use, contextual practices as part of their response.

In the absence of a contextual response, risks persisted in peer groups, school environments and public places where the incidents in question had occurred – even after criminal justice sanctions (including incarceration).

In this publication, Ms Firmin explores these dynamics, and the use of Contextual Safeguarding to resolve them, in three parts.


  1. The challenges of individualised responses to extra-familial harm.
  2. The four components of the Contextual Safeguarding framework and how it has been applied to safeguarding practice and policy (see the graphic above).
  3. Opportunities to apply a Contextual Safeguarding approach in a youth justice setting.


Contextual Safeguarding was designed to change how child protection systems viewed, and responded to, children at risk of significant harm in extra-familial settings and relationships. As testing of the approach has increased, its relevance for wider agencies involved in safeguarding and criminal justice responses to extra-familial harm has started to emerge. Given the overlap in victimisation and perpetration for many children affected by this issue, the implications for youth justice services is particularly important. 

Local services are challenged with designing responses that reflect this reality. The Contextual Safeguarding framework has been used to provide a language, develop knowledge about common practices, and convert many of those practices into resources, to facilitate system-change. Youth Justice workers and those working in gangs and County Lines projects in particular will want to following emerging practice in the contextual safeguarding field.


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